Tim Furniss/LONDON

Mobile Communications Holdings has awarded a $1.4 billion contract to Boeing to design, fabricate and launch satellites in the Ellipso system to provide worldwide fixed, mobile and airborne communications from elliptical orbit.

Boeing will also provide the ground segment infrastructure for the 16-satellite system in two constellations, and one in-orbit spare, which will provide low cost telephone, data, facsimile, paging, voice mail and positioning system services. The company also becomes an equity partner in the project and says that it "-will take advantage of its experience" with the production of Navstar global positioning system satellites to pursue the programme.

Boeing could invest up to $200 million in equity and vendor financing. The Seattle aerospace company is already a leading investor in the Teledesic internet data satellite project alongside Microsoft boss Bill Gates and entrepreneur Craig McGaw.

The elliptical orbit of the Ellipso will allow Mobile Communications to tailor satellite coverage to match population density. The system is planned to be available from 2001. The market for worldwide subscriber terminals is estimated to reach 42 million in 2006, comprising 12.8 million fixed and 29.2 million mobile terminals.

The Ellipso system will be focused on the "greatest market opportunity" in developing countries. Mobile Communications, a privately held US company, is targeting the developing world as a niche, rather than challenging head-on the global aspirations of rivals such as Motorola's Iridium and Loral Space & Communications' Globalstar satellite-based mobile telephone projects.

Orbital Sciences (OSC), meanwhile, has pulled out of plans to join the Ellipso project and, with Constellation Communications International, has established a strategic partnership to develop the ECCO equatorial region satellite communications system.

OSC will receive a $450 million contract to establish the space segment of an initial constellation of 12 equatorial low Earth orbit satellites, possibly to be enlarged with 35 additional satellites.

Source: Flight International