POLICY CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR GLOBAL
MOBILE PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS BY SATELLITE:
THE INMARSAT VIEWPOINT
by Warren Grace,
Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite (GMPCS), with its reduced equipment and usage costs, is of particular relevance to the developing world. The case for telecommunications as a powerful engine of economic, social and political development is widely accepted. But the efforts of many developing countries to improve telephone access for their peoples are often confounded by geography. While it may be relatively straightforward to furnish a few major cities with fixed or cellular telephones, the still largely rural populations of the developing world are much more difficult to reach, such is their remoteness and the sheer number of communities to be connected.
GMPCS can offer a solution now. The world's telecommunications markets are currently being conditioned to regard GMPCS as something that can be delivered only via cellular-sized handsets and which will not be available for at least two or three years to come. While it is now clear that such a capability will indeed be on offer in due course, Inmarsat considers that some of its existing products – notably the latest, laptop-sized, generation of Inmarsat-phone – can be defined as GMPCS.
Thus many of the GMPCS questions to be discussed at the World Telecommunication Policy Forum as if they were issues for the future are in fact being addressed at the practical level by a global operator that is already in business.
Inmarsat can currently supply telephone, fax and data services to isolated communities anywhere on the face of the planet. A robust, free-standing, solar-powered village phone booth, tied directly into the national PSTN, can be installed in less than a day. With such a set-up the national PTT can make a commercial return at an end-user price (EUP) comparable to that of a conventional domestic long-distance call. Combining a multichannel satellite system with a "wireless local loop" hub provides cheap local personal communications coupled with a satellite gateway to the outside world.
Prices will fall still further as a result of technological breakthroughs and increasingly fierce competition. New GMPCS ventures are promising EUPs of as little as 50 cents per minute. Operators may find it cost-effective to run hybrid satellite/cellular networks, with satellites covering the sparsely populated hinterlands and a conventional cellular infrastructure the urban 'hotspots'. Build-out problems would be alleviated, with the operator offering 100 per cent national coverage from Day One and subsequently back-filling the required terrestrial base stations at a steady pace.
There are policy and regulatory obstacles in the way of the realization of this vision, however. They are prompted mainly by a fear of the effect on the revenues of national operators of 'bypass' - affluent visitors using GMPCS instead of local networks. This is to misunderstand the essential role of GMPCS in these countries: the provision of telecommunications services in areas where they are otherwise economically impossible.
Where local networks do exist, they tend in general to be cheaper than satellite. Moreover, calls to or from GMPCS terminals often go part of the way via the national terrestrial network. For the local operator this is revenue-generating traffic that might not exist if the use of GMPCS were barred or otherwise obstructed.
Nevertheless, many countries continue to impede the free circulation (also known as 'mutual recognition') of GMPCS terminals in various ways. Some limit usage by imposing high licence fees and customs duties and demanding local type-approval of terminals. Several nations levy annual licence fees of several thousand dollars for a single terminal: one charges US$12,000, two or three times the price of an Inmarsat-phone, for instance. Import duties of 60-70 per cent of the cost of the equipment are not unusual; one nation charges 108 per cent. Some countries prohibit the use of mobile satellite terminals altogether, with the possible exception of their use for disaster relief.
If national governments can be persuaded that in principle these practices are contrary to their best interests, there are in existence already two mechanisms designed to support freer movement by GMPCS users.
In Europe arrangements have been made so that a terminal licensed in one country can be accepted for use in another without any further licensing requirement. Such terminals are distinguished by a special mark and the user may also carry a 'circulation card' listing the countries which require no further licensing.
Inmarsat has created a model agreement aimed at facilitating transborder use within regions. This is being implemented in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries and is under study elsewhere.
It could well take several years to achieve similar levels of mutual recognition worldwide. In the meantime, there have been suggestions that the International Telecommunication Union could maintain a register of all countries which agree to waive additional licensing requirements. As national regulatory authorities informed the ITU of their decisions to recognize the licences of other countries listed in the register, the ITU could update the list and circulate it to national regulators. The list could also be made available to users.
Many countries require telecommunications equipment to be type-approved before it can be used on their territory. Inmarsat encourages countries to accept its type approval without need for further testing, on the grounds that its procedures have already been widely accepted by its signatories (shareholders) and by manufacturers. Whether or not Inmarsat type approval is accepted, there is an obvious need for some mutual recognition. As with licences, the ITU could maintain a register of countries agreeing to mutual recognition.
Each country's regulator would need to keep its customs authority supplied with a list of GMPCS equipment exempted from national type-approval requirements. Following the European example, such equipment could be marked or the user could carry a circulation card.
There are no such ready-made solutions to the application of deterrent levels of customs duties to GMPCS terminals. Duties currently range from zero to 70 per cent or more of the value of the equipment. A traveller visiting a number of countries in succession may be required to pay duties several times over. Even if the individual sums are modest, the cumulative total could be significant enough to deter the user from travelling with a terminal.
There is a clear need to examine this issue more closely and raise it with the World Trade Organization (WTO), the aim being to eliminate duties or reduce them to a nominal level. The case for reform should be built on the ability of mobile satellite terminals to provide communications where no other means exists, to assist in national economic development, and to support humanitarian applications such as disaster relief, emergency communications, telemedicine and environmental protection.
The GMPCS community and its customers may benefit in this respect from the recent proposal to the WTO by the United States, with the likely backing of the Asia-Pacific Economic Community, that all import tariffs on telecommunications products be abolished by the end of the decade.
Much remains to be done, however, and at least two further specific measures are proposed. Following this forum, the ITU could circulate to all its members a proposed policy and regulatory framework covering the transborder use of GMPCS terminals. And the European Radiocommunications Committee's Recommendation on Free Circulation of Land Mobile Satellite Service Terminals should be actively promulgated.
At the general level, the actual and aspiring GMPCS operators need to show national policymakers, regulators and service providers how freer movement and use of mobile satellite terminals can benefit the developing countries. At the same time, the industry must listen to the developing countries, understand their concerns and respect their sovereign rights.
This effort might build on the example of the GSM digital cellular standard. Transborder roaming arrangements have been reached successfully within Europe and elsewhere, so that GSM users can use their cellular phones easily and without restriction in many countries around the world.
All these measures are intended to create an environment conducive to the availability of GMPCS and to facilitate the earning of revenues by local service providers.
National network operators and entrepreneurs are of central importance to the commercial success of GMPCS. Whatever their technical merits, the GMPCS wholesalers - the system operators - can prosper only if they collaborate with retailers who give customers an opportunity to buy locally, to be billed locally in local currency, and have a local source of after-sales service. Nor is there any substitute for local sales and marketing backed up by strong global branding by the wholesaler.
The GMPCS market is currently being addressed by one 'first-generation' provider - Inmarsat - and three or four which are building systems with the intention of launching service in the next few years. It is questionable whether investment will be forthcoming to support systems beyond those currently in development. As to how many the market will sustain in the long term, that must depend on a wide variety of factors: growth of demand for the services that they offer, economic growth in the developing nations, the speed with which a global open market for telecommunications services is created, the ability of terrestrial mobile providers to go on expanding their coverage areas.
Only one thing can be predicted with any certainty. GMPCS represents such an advance in the way people communicate, and such a potentially powerful force for improvement in the lot of the developing nations, that it seems certain to enjoy an assured place in the telecommunications arena of the future.
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