Ligado may soon learn its 5G fate

The FCC's chairman may finally, after years of deliberations, make some kind of decision on Ligado and its spectrum. However, no matter what Ajit Pai decides, he's going to make some enemies.

Pai's judgement is a long time in coming. For almost a decade now, several different high-profile management teams – first under the auspices of LightSquared and later under the name Ligado – have tried to get governmental authorization to put a chunk of spectrum in the 1600MHz band, called the L-Band, into commercial use. And for the same amount of time, some participants in the GPS industry have opposed that proposal because of worries that commercial operations in the L-Band could interfere with GPS signals, which operate in a nearby band.

For several years now, the FCC chairman has been considering a new L-Band proposal pushed by Ligado and supported by some GPS industry representatives. Many had expected Pai to render some kind of decision on the topic last year, but that didn't happen.

Now, though, it appears that Pai may have reached a verdict, based on the growing noise around the topic and according to a source who declined to be identified. However, it's not clear what exactly Pai will do.

If Pai approves Ligado's request, the company and its investors will undoubtedly be elated as it would pave the way for Ligado to either sell its spectrum or, potentially, put it to use in a commercial 5G network for Internet of Things (IoT) services. But if Pai rejects the company's proposal, a number of top-level government officials, including in the Pentagon and the NTIA, will breathe a sigh of relief.

Heated opposition
C4ISRNET, which covers military topics, published a detailed report last week that the FCC intends to approve Ligado's proposal, citing multiple, unnamed sources. The report also cited opposition to Ligado's proposal from two top officials at the Department of Defense.

Importantly, C4ISRNET's report appears to have sparked widespread concerns among a variety of government officials about the issue. For example, a top NTIA official on Friday essentially reiterated his agency's opposition to Ligado's proposal. And, according to C4ISRNET, two members of Congress voiced their "strong concerns" that the FCC could approve Ligado's proposal and potentially affect GPS operations, after C4ISRNET's initial report.

Further, GPS users Deere & Company, Garmin International and Trimble – under their GPS Innovation Alliance association – said Monday they do not support Ligado's proposal.

Ligado quickly responded to all the noise with its own filing on Sunday, arguing that its plans won't impact GPS signals and that all the latest developments "only serve to further delay a proceeding that has already run unreasonably long."

A DOA proposal
At least one analyst who closely tracks the topic believes Ligado's management has been working to pull a range of political levers in the Trump administration to obtain the FCC's consent for its plan.

Analyst Tim Farrar with TMF Associates pointed out that Trump's attorney general, William Barr, argued that the FCC should approve Ligado's proposal. "There have been interesting proposals to jump-start US 5G by also making available L-Band spectrum for use in tandem with the C-Band," Barr said in a February speech. "By using the L-Band for uplink, we could dramatically reduce the number of base stations required to complete national coverage. It has been suggested that this could cut the time for US 5G deployment from a decade to 18 months, and save approximately $80 million. While some technical issues about using the L-Band are being debated, it is imperative that the FCC resolves this question."

Barr in the same speech floated a proposal for the US government to purchase Nokia or Ericsson as a counter to China's Huawei – a suggestion that met with widespread consternation among Washington, DC, officials.

Further, Farrar pointed to a letter penned by FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly earlier this month urging President Trump to force the Department of Defense to "reduce its spectrum footprint." However, O'Rielly did not mention Ligado or the L-Band by name in his letter.

Finally, Farrar wrote that, even if the FCC approves Ligado's proposal and paves the way for 5G in the L-Band, few will be interested in the company's spectrum.

"Of course this latest business plan is just as much nonsense as the previous business plans presented by Ligado and its predecessor companies in their attempts to persuade the FCC to grant them a license, because other countries are deploying TDD networks in their C-Band spectrum for the entirely logical reason that it maximizes the performance of MIMO, and are never going to approve use of L-band uplinks in satellite spectrum in any case," Farrar argued. "Why would US telcos decide to do anything other than follow suit?"

FCC officials typically do not comment beyond the agency's official statements. The commission is scheduled to hold its April meeting next week and Ligado's proposal is so far not on the agenda.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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