Northpoint Seeks Satellite Spectrum for Terrestrial Network

Direct-broadcast satellite (DBS) companies have fought hard to gain parity with cable TV providers. A recent regulatory decision allowing the retransmission of local TV signals by satellite will go a long way toward giving DBSers equal footing with cable, and is the result of a long campaign of invoking "the free market" and "open competition."

Now those same satellite companies are fighting a small terrestrial broadcasting startup that would use some of the same spectrum allocated to satellites. If it can win approval by Congress and by the Federal Communications Commission, Northpoint Technology Ltd. plans to roll out a wireless television broadcasting network using small terrestrial transmitters and dish antennas. Northpoint's antennas will point north—hence the name—in the opposite direction from satellite dish antennas, which are all aimed at satellites near the southern horizon.

The company, under the leadership of 44-year-old Sophia Collier, plans to use its network to deliver television inexpensively to consumers—$17.95/month is the suggested subscription rate—as an alternative to both cable and satellite service. The plan reportedly has the support of many lawmakers and administrators, including FCC chairman William Kennard, who since taking office has been extremely supportive of proposals to increase competition and diversity in the broadcasting industry.

To the dismay of DBS executives, Northpoint has been given the fast track in Washington. The use of satellite spectrum that Northpoint proposes will cause an unacceptable increase in interference, satellite-industry spokesmen and lobbyists maintain. The "interference" argument is the same one the National Association of Broadcasters has put forth in its opposition to low-power community radio. Austin, Texas–based Northpoint, with only four employees, is meeting stiff opposition from such heavyweights as DirecTV Inc., Boeing Company, and Loral Space & Communications. DirecTV, which has successfully used the law to improve its market share, now wants to close the door to new competitors.

In February, the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association sent a letter to the FCC warning that Northpoint-type services sharing satellite spectrum would cause "ruinous interference and serious disruption of services to consumers." Northpoint also wants to offer high-speed Internet access for an additional charge, which would put the little company in head-to-head competition with AT&T, America Online, Earthlink, and other big Internet service providers.

A Texas engineer developed Northpoint's technology in the early 1990s. Sophia Collier, who established the company in 1996, says if Northpoint wins FCC approval, she will hire major telecom companies to build and maintain the system—which, if all goes well, could begin its rollout within six months.