The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved the first applications of private international communications satellite systems to compete with Intelsat, the 110-nation global satellite consortium that carries most worldwide telephone and television transmissions.
In granting the applications of International Satellite, PanAmerican Satellite and RCA American Communications to build the private satellite systems, the FCC opened the door to major changes in the way communications are sent between the United States and other nations.
"It's a very important day," Frederick Landman, president of PanAmerican Satellite, said in a telephone interview from New York.
The FCC action limits the new private systems to business communications and forbids them to transmit public telephone calls overseas. In setting these and other restrictions, the FCC is attempting to comply with a presidential directive that the new competitors not cause major economic harm to Intelsat, which has bitterly opposed the move.
Challenge From Intelsat
The global consortium argues that the new entrants will unfairly disrupt its communications network and siphon traffic and revenue from its most profitable transmission routes between the United States and Europe.
In a statement, Intelsat challenged the FCC action, saying that the new systems "would duplicate facilities and services that Intelsat provides and plans to provide and would weaken the basic operational, technical and economic underpinnings of the Intelsat system and organization."
Action was deferred on two other applicants, Orion Satellite and Cygnus Satellite, because of what FCC officials called technical problems with their filings.
But Orion President Thomas K. McKnight said the problems for his company are minor and will be quickly remedied.
"We're delighted," he said of the move Thursday. "The race is on."
Pan American Satellite's Landman said he expects his company to launch the first satellite for a private network. "I think we've got an excellent chance to have customers and be providing service by this time next year," he said.
New Telephone Industry Rules
On another issue, the FCC voted to reexamine some of the rules governing the telephone industry, a move that could result in new, sophisticated services being offered to residential and business customers nationwide.
The rules, established in 1980, bar AT&T; and other telephone companies from providing a variety of new "voice message services." These computer services include enabling customers to take, leave, delay and screen messages as well as to set priorities for the order in which calls are received.
"This is a positive step forward," AT&T; spokesman Herb Linnen said. His company and others have objected to the rules as artificial restraints on the introduction of new customer services.
The regulations were designed to help spur competition in the marketplace, once dominated by AT&T;, by requiring companies to separate their basic telephone service from other computerized information services, such as data processing.
FCC officials noted that dramatic changes have taken place in the telecommunications field in the last five years, including the breakup of AT&T; and a sharp increase in competition.
"It's not the same industry we had in 1980," said Michael S. Slomin of the FCC's common carrier bureau, adding that today, as a result of the rules, "services are being denied the public."
As part of its reevaluation, the FCC is proposing to change its requirement that AT&T; and the seven regional Bell operating companies created by the breakup sell these information services through separate subsidiaries.
There will be a 90-day public comment period after the FCC's order is released in about two weeks.