4G satellite company takes aim at cell carriers

With newly acquired SkyTerra network, Harbinger Capital invests in 4G

Look out, U.S. cellular carriers -- there could soon be a new 4G carrier on the block.

There could soon be a new 4G-based carrier taking aim at cell providers.

According to documents filed late last week by the Federal Communications Commission, investment firm Harbinger Capital Partners plans to use its recent acquisition of satellite communications company SkyTerra to build out a 4G network of its own.

Top 10 cool satellite projectsThe FCC says that Harbinger will build out a hybrid network that combines satellite with terrestrial technology that will be "capable… of deploying LTE and WiMAX level service." In other words, Harbinger will have a terrestrial 4G data network similar to what other wireless carriers have, but that will also be able to fill in coverage gaps using satellite technology that can reach rural areas that won't be covered by the terrestrial network.

As far as timelines go, the FCC projects that Harbinger will have a trial of the terrestrial service up and running in two markets in the second half of 2011. Assuming all goes according to plan, Harbinger's terrestrial 4G network will cover 100 million people by the end of 2012 and more than 260 million people by the end of 2015.

Neither Harbinger nor SkyTerra is publicly commenting on plans for 4G satellite-terrestrial networks yet. For its part, the FCC sounded an encouraging note in its report on the companies' plans as it said that any potential new 4G networks would be "a significant public interest benefit, both because of the competition it will bring in mobile wireless broadband services and because it will provide mobile wireless broadband service to traditionally underserved areas."

SkyTerra currently uses a 34MHz block on the L-band of spectrum. The company has just over 18,000 subscribers to its mobile services, according to the FCC.

The FCC has made opening up new wireless spectrum a key goal of its efforts to bring mobile broadband to unserved rural areas. In its national broadband plan released earlier this month, the FCC declared that it wanted to free up some satellite communications spectrum for wireless data use, along with some television spectrum and unused spectrum on the 700MHz band.

Specifically, the FCC said it wanted to convert 90MHz of mobile satellite spectrum (MSS) owned by companies such as SkyTerra and Globalstar to mobile broadband. Under the broadband plan, the FCC will encourage MSS licensees to accelerate their efforts to make the spectrum usable for broadband use through their Ancillary Terrestrial Components that the FCC required them to build in 2003 to enhance their satellite coverage. In total, the companies operating on the MSS bands have more than 1 million subscribers and the FCC would like to see the companies do more to push into the mass market for consumer mobile broadband.

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