Telcos Spot Cellular Sites Via Satellite

Spot Image helps telcos plan wireless phone sites

Spot Image, a Reston, Va., satellite imaging company that has long counted the Department of Defense among its largest customers, has found a growing new market in telecommunications companies.

As telcos go into new businesses themselves, such as the wireless personal communications services, they need to determine how cell towers should be situated. Every country -- even every city with different terrains -- is a new challenge. Wrong geographic information leads telcos to build too many sites, and the radio signal going from cellular sites to wireless phones can be blocked by mountains, hills or buildings.

By 2000, more than three-fifths of the earth, or 30 million square miles, will be covered by cellular telephone service, company officials estimate. That means a lot of planning is required. "Geographic information is notoriously difficult to get," said Clark Nelson, manager of marketing and communications for Spot Image.

Spot has three orbiting satellites and plans to launch three more. It can deliver detailed imagery of any region in the world. Nelson also maintains that satellite imagery is superior to ground mapping because images can be constantly updated.

"For telecom companies, the most critical information helps them figure out where to put cell sites to get the best coverage," said Nelson.

Spot, whose world headquarters is in Toulouse, France, does business internationally. The United States accounts for only 25 percent of its income.

Telecom companies in the past would go to countries and use maps with mistakes. That's not such a smart idea to risk billion-dollar deals, he said.

A telco using Spot Image's maps would receive digital copies of the image, which takes a cell site and calculates where the signal would be impeded by buildings or mountains. Telecom companies often overlay modeling software, which allows them to create demographic scenarios, before making decisions on where to place sites.

"It's one-stop shopping," said Nelson.

It also helps them meet their deadlines. The Federal Communications Commission gives telcos a certain amount of time to construct towers after they have bid successfully for airwave spectrum in a government auction.

Spot Image can show companies rural areas, as well as more-detailed urban regions. Customers for Spot Image products read like a who's who of telecom, including Nokia, Ericsson, Nynex and Qualcomm. "Of the 30 big names in the industry, we are working with 22 or 23," said Denis Deville, who works in business development for Spot Image. The company is now doing business in about 45 countries.

One of Spot's telco customers, Qualcomm, San Diego, used its maps to determine how many cell sites would be needed to cover Hong Kong. Without the mapping, Qualcomm estimates it would have built 83 rather than the necessary 80 sites. That saved $3 million, according to Qualcomm.

While clients also include urban planners, agriculturists, real estate developers and the Defense Department, the fastest growing market is telecom, said Nelson.

Within the telecom company, many people analyze results, including radio-frequency engineers and marketing representatives. The marketing people might crunch demographic and business data and then take that to engineering so the cell site planning can start.

While new technologies such as personal communications services are fueling the demand, political changes also call for new infrastructures. China, especially, which had a government changeover two years ago and is highly populated, is a great market, said Deville.

However, Spot Image has had a difficult time explaining to some executives why maps are necessary, Deville admitted. However, those telcos will turn around, he said, when they have problems due to cell-tower placement.

"They will lose subscribers. They will change their minds," he said. In Europe, where cellular telephony is much farther ahead than in the United States, hundreds of thousands of customers have problems with their connections, Deville said. "If setting up a cell site costs a quarter of a million dollars, you're already saving potentially millions of dollars [if you put it in the right place]," said Deville.

The main concerns telcos have, he said, are quality, price and availability. A Spot Image telecom

"urban package," which covers an 18.6-by-18.6-mile area anywhere in the world, can be produced in about four weeks and costs between $13,000 and $17,000.

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