The International Telecommunication Union's first World Telecommunication Policy Forum will focus on Mobile Satellite Systems, otherwise known as Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite.

These systems are not like the satellites which have traditionally handled telecommunications and broadcasting traffic. They are based on a new type of satellite technology, and are referred to in the industry as Big and Little Low Earth Orbit (LEO) systems. LEO satellites are relatively small, and are located in orbits much closer to the surface of the Earth than a traditional communications satellite. The advantage of this is that they are able to receive signals from devices as small as a pocket-sized mobile phone.

In general, two different types of system are being proposed by a range of mostly private organizations. Little LEO systems will use small satellites measuring around one metre cubed, and will provide mobile data and messaging services. They will be used for data gathering, electronic facsimile, two-way paging and electronic mail. Big LEO systems are larger satellites which will provide some or all of these services in addition to real-time voice. They will be used to provide global mobile telephone services via small personal handsets.

In order to achieve global coverage, the new LEO systems will comprise several satellites orbiting in a constellation around the Earth. These satellites will pick up signals and transfer them to their destination site via interconnection with other satellites in the constellation, or by interconnection to a series of Earth stations on the ground and then to the terrestrial network. The route the signal takes will be transparent to the user, who will simply experience seamless international interconnection.

While today's mobile phone user can already take advantage of some degree of 'international roaming' with existing cellular technology, the number of different systems in use worldwide means that 'global roaming' is not practical. The advantage for those using one of the new Mobile Satellite Systems would be that a single standard would be implemented within the system no matter where the user happened to be, providing the basis for a truly global roaming capability.

Another enormous potential benefit of the proposed new satellite systems is that they could provide access to telecommunications in remote areas, as well as to communities which, for economic or geographical reasons, do not have access to fixed line telephony. Cellular telephony has already proved an enormous boon to many developing nations, because of its ability to provide a reliable communications infrastructure without the substantial investment needed to install and maintain a large wireline network. New mobile satellite systems could extend this benefit to even more communities.

If the Forum is to be a success, the ITU Membership will need to focus on the broad policy and regulatory issues which are raised by GMPCS, which are for the most part technology independent.

General Definitions

What is the difference between a geostationary satellite and a non-geostationary satellite?

Geostationary (GSO) satellites occupy an orbital position 36,000 km above the earth, and remain in a stationary position relative to the Earth itself. The world's major existing telecommunications and broadcasting satellites fall into this category.

Non-geostationary (NGSO) satellites occupy a range of orbital positions (LEO satellites are located between 700km-1,500km from the Earth, MEO satellites are located at 10,000km from the Earth), and do not maintain a stationary position, but instead move in relation to the Earth's surface.

What are the Types of Non-geostationary Satellite?

A 'Little LEO' is a small non-geostationary satellite which operates in Low Earth Orbit, providing mainly mobile data services.

A 'Big LEO' is a larger non-geostationary satellite which operates in Low Earth Orbit, providing mainly mobile telephony services. Many of the new proposed 'global mobile phone' services will be provided by this type of satellite.

A 'MEO' is a non-geostationary satellite which operates in Medium Earth Orbit, again providing mobile telephony services. These satellites have also been proposed to be used as part of new global mobile telephone systems.

What Types of System will be Covered?

The Forum will look at a range of different systems which fall under the broad category of GMPCS. Many contributions to the WTPF have recommended a broad approach to the concept of Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite, in order to fully address the important issues. Consequently, the adjectives 'global', 'mobile', and 'personal' are less precise than when the acronym was conceived.

In fact, GMPCS can be considered as the satellite component of IMT-2000, the ITU's vision of a future system, to come into service around the year 2000, which would unify the diverse systems we see today into a radio infrastructure offering 'anywhere, anytime' mobile communications.

The types of systems under discussion will comprise:

What are the Proposed Systems Today?

There are a number of global mobile satellite systems (MSS) currently planned or already in service. Whether all of them are eventually realized will largely depend on the ability of the would-be operators to raise the necessary funds for system deployment and to conclude agreements to provide the services globally. The following table provides an overview, by order of type (GSO or NGSO) and launch date, of the present situation:

Name of system

Type of system

Number of satellites

Type of service


Orbcomm Little LEO 28 data 2 satellites operational; full system mid-1997
E-Sat Little LEO 6 data 1997

(Final Analysis)

Little LEO 26 data, voicemail, voice paging 1997
VITAsat (VITA) Little LEO 2 data 1997
Koskon (Polyot) Big LEO 32 voice, data,
fax, paging
Globalstar Big LEO 48 voice, data, fax, paging, GPS 1998
Iridium Big LEO 66 voice, data, fax, paging 1998
GE Starsys Little LEO 24 data

(CTA Commercial Systems)

Little LEO 38 data 1999
LEO One USA Little LEO 48 data 1999
M-Star (Motorola) Broadband LEO 72 broadband services 1999
ECCO (Constellation/
Big LEO 46 voice, data,
fax, paging
ICO MEO 10 voice, data,
fax, paging
Ellipso (MCHI) LEO/MEO 17 voice, data, paging,
Odyssey Big LEO 12 data, voice, fax, short message 2000
Teledesic Broadband LEO 840 broadband services 2001
Celsat (Hughes/Nortel) GEO 3 voice, data,
fax, paging
INMARSAT 3* GEO 5 voice, fax, data in service
(Hughes Network Systems)
GEO 12 voice, data, video, broadband services 2000

Note: Table information sourced from operators and/or ITU

Overview of the Big/Broadband LEO Players

While the Little LEO systems will almost certainly be the first low earth orbit systems to market, it is the Big LEO MSS that have captured the world's imagination, because their promise of seamless global real-time voice, fax, data and even broadband multimedia capabilities has the potential to dramatically change the way information is distributed and shared around the globe.

At present, there are four main players in the Big LEO market. In addition, Teledesic Corporation has plans for a different kind of system that they describe simply as 'LEO', and which is aimed more at users of computers than those seeking real-time voice communications. While the other systems will focus on global voice communications, the Teledesic system will focus mainly on providing a high-speed wireless network for PCs.

Overview of the Big New Players

  Globalstar ICO Iridium Odyssey Teledesic
Estimated system cost (US$million)






Current Equity (US$)

1400 million

1500 million

2650 million

150 million


Handset cost (US$)



$2,500 - 3,000


does not use handset

Call charges (US$)**

around $1.00/minute


$3.00/minute worldwide

Less than $1.00/minute

to be determined

FCC approved






Satellite lifetime

7.5 years

12 years

5 years

15 years

10 years

Subscriber link






Note: Table information sourced from operators

** While the information has been provided for interest's sake, most pricing comparisons in fact are not meaningful, since the charge quoted by operators is frequently the 'wholesale price to another operator, and may not reflect the price a user will eventually be charged.

Who's Behind the Main Systems?

The following is a list of those systems which involve one or more partnerships:

Final Analysis

Partners include Final Analysis Inc (USA) and Polyot (Russia)


Partners include: Loral; Qualcomm; Vodaphone; France Telecom; Dacom; Airtouch Communications; Daimler-Benz Aerospace; Finmeccanica; Alcatel; Spacesytems Loral; Alenia; Hyundai.

ICO Global Communications

Partners include: Bahrain Telecommunications Company; Beijing Marine Communication and Navigation Co; Bureau of Maritime Affairs, Liberai; Companhia Portuguesa Radio Marconi SA; COMSAT Argentina SA; COMSAT Corporation USA; CS Communications Company Limited, Thailand; Cyprus Telecommunications Authority; DeTeMobil, Germany (Group Deutsche Telekom); Emirates Telecommunications Corporation; Empresa Brasileira de Telecomunicações S/A; Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba; Hellenic Telecommunications Organization SA, Greece; PT INDOSAT, Indonesia; International Communications Organization of Cameroon; Korea Telecommunications Consortium (with Samsung Electronics and Shinsegi Cellular Communication); Kuwait Investment Authority; Ministry of Communications, Israel; Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, Lebanon; Ministry of Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones and Saudi Public Investment Fund; Ministry of Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones, Oman; Mobile Telecommunications Co-KSC, Kuwait; Morsviazsputnik, Russia; Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation; Philippine Communications Satellite Corporation; PTT Telecom BV, Netherlands; Qatar Public Telecommunications Corporation; Satellite Phone Japan Limited; Singapore Telecommunications Limited; Société Nationale des Télécommunications du Sénégal; Swiss Telecom PTT; Telecom Finland Ltd; Telecomunicaciones de Mexico; Telefónica de España SA; Telekom Malaysia Berhad; Telekomunikacja Polska SA; Telemalta Corporation; Telkom SA Ltd, South Africa; Telstra, Australia; Türk Telecom; Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd, India


Partners include: China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIG); Iridium Africa Corporation; Iridium Canada, Inc.; Iridium India TELECOM Private Ltd, (IITL); Iridium Middle East Corporation; Iridium SudAmerica Corporation ; Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center; Korea Mobile TELECOM; Lockheed Martin; Motorola; Nippon Iridium Corporation; Pacific Electric Wire & Cable Co. Ltd (PEWC); Raytheon; STET; Sprint; Thai Satellite Telecommunications Co., Ltd.; Vebacom


Partners include: Orbital Sciences Corp.(USA); Teleglobe Inc. (Canada)

Odyssey Communications

Partners include: TRW Inc. (USA); Teleglobe Inc. (Canada)

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