Pan American Satellite Corp., a small, privately owned Connecticut company, is hoping to dismantle an almost 30-year-old monopoly in the international satellite communications business in a fashion reminiscent of MCI Communications Corp.'s long and bitter fight against American Telephone and Telegraph Co.
In a recent filing with the Federal Communications Commission, Panamsat is seeking permission to transmit the public's calls over its satellite system instead of being limited to transmitting only corporate calls.
If the strategy sounds familiar, it should. MCI began to elbow its way into the monopoly of AT&T by first going into long-distance service to private businesses between St. Louis and Chicago. Later, it sought the use of the lines of AT&T to cater to other places.
Like MCI, which is headed by William McGowan, Panamsat has its own maverick at the helm. The entire company is owned by Reynaldo V. Anselmo, an American entrepreneur who made a fortune in a Spanish-language television network before setting up the company in 1984. Designed to link North America, South America and Europe, the satellite was launched last June 1988 at a cost of more than $80 million -- financed by Anselmo entirely out of his own pocket.
The FCC's Jim Ball said the commission is presently bound by two regulations. One restriction prohibits separate systems from carrying public-switched traffic to avoid significant economic harm to the International Satellite Organization, or Intelsat. The second is a 1985 FCC policy decision that established the rules governing the operation of separate satellite systems.
Intelsat, whose 118 members are mostly government-owned telephone companies around the world, was the sole provider of long-haul international satellite telecommunications from 1965 until 1988, when Panamsat launched its satellite.
Under the rules governing the FCC, it is possible that the case will be dismissed without going through a public notice.
Panamsat President Fred Landman said, however, that it will be unlikely for the FCC to dismiss the petition without public notice. He said that the firm expects word from the commission within 30 days.
Intelsat declined to comment on the petition and referred any statement to Washington-based Communications Satellite Corp. (Comsat), the American member of the satellite consortium.
A Comsat spokesman said the company "supports the U.S. position on separate systems" and that it will "work actively" on any policy reviews.
An early argument of Intelsat against lifting the restrictions is that competition could lead to a decline in service to developing countries, since new firms are likely to cater to high-density areas only. Panamsat argues that Intelsat has never presented any evidence or studies to demonstrate these claims. The firm claims that the developing countries may be subsidizing industrialized countries.
In its petition, Pan American said the world situation is changing and many nations are deregulating their telecommunications monopolies to allow private sector competition.
It also said protecting Intelsat's monopoly means the government is protecting not U.S. interests but the interest of foreign telecommunications monopolies that are overcharging U.S. telephone consumers.