NextNav's CEO explains her 5G network buildout plan

Mariam Sorond, CEO of NextNav, said the company is looking for a partner interested in using NextNav's 900MHz holdings for a 5G network buildout.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

May 3, 2024

4 Min Read
Mariam Sorond nextnav
Sorond (Source: NextNav)

NextNav, a developer of 3D geolocation technology, isn't planning to build its own 5G network using its nationwide 900MHz spectrum holdings. Instead, the company is hoping to find a partner to do the heavy lifting, according to NextNav's new CEO, Mariam Sorond.

"We're not going to build the network. The partner would do that," Sorond told Light Reading.

But she made it clear that NextNav isn't planning to simply sell its 900MHz spectrum holdings to a network operator if it receives approval from the FCC to allow 5G into that spectrum.

"We're not selling spectrum," Sorond said. "There's no asset to purchase. We're not in the game of flipping spectrum."

So, how will NextNav's 900MHz be put into use?

"We haven't figured that out yet," Sorond said. She explained that NextNav is open to a variety of business models that would allow a mobile network operator or another customer to make use of NextNav's spectrum in a 5G operation.

"It's a solid plan," Sorond said.

A new proposal

The other plans for NextNav’s spectrum include some potentially sophisticated location-based services. Last month NextNav asked the FCC to reconfigure spectrum between 902MHz and 928MHz – dubbed by NextNav as the "Lower 900 MHz Band" – to support positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services, as well as 5G.

"Under this proposal, network partners would integrate NextNav's Lower 900 MHz Band spectrum into their 5G networks, and NextNav would implement, operate, and manage additional PNT-optimized infrastructure over the 5G network," the company wrote.

The FCC is now evaluating that proposal. A likely next step would be for the agency to solicit commentary on the plan before making a decision. The process could take months or years.

"We think it solves a national security problem," Sorond said.

As Light Reading previously reported, there is a major federal push underway to create reliable alternatives to the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation, an effort that has accelerated following Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which included extensive GPS jamming and spoofing. The push is driving a growing number of telecom companies – including NextNav – into the market for PNT services.

Sorond said NextNav envisions its partner building a nationwide 5G network using NextNav's 15MHz chunk of spectrum in the 900MHz band. The partner would use the network for 5G, while NextNav would use it to offer nationwide PNT services. Sorond said NextNav's PNT offerings would consume roughly 2% to 5% of the network's total capacity.

"A standalone PNT network absolutely makes no economic sense," she said.

Potential partners

If the FCC approves NextNav's plan, which companies might be interested in partnering with the company?

"The whole gamut is on the table right now," Sorond said, explaining that NextNav is in ongoing discussions with a variety of possible partners.

Sorond declined to specify which companies but said US mobile network operators like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and EchoStar's Dish Network would be the most likely candidates. Each has the cell towers and backhaul necessary to put NextNav's 900MHz into action. All they would have to do is hang new, 900MHz-capable radios onto those towers.

But Sorond said other companies might also be interested in the spectrum.

Indeed, T-Mobile has identified engineering giant Burns & McDonnell as a potential buyer of its 800MHz holdings. In a court filing last year, Burns & McDonnell said it "plans to unlock consumer choice by making spectrum available to those in need, such as regional carriers and Internet providers (particularly in underserved and unserved areas), in addition to working with partners to modernize our aging [utility] infrastructure and enable private networks for utilities so they can offer enhanced services to their customers."

What about Dish?

Dish might be NextNav's most logical partner. Dish had initially intended to purchase T-Mobile's 800MHz holdings but said recently it doesn't have the $3.6 billion necessary to complete the deal. That could mean that Dish would be more interested in a partnership rather than a purchase.

Moreover, Sorond worked at Dish during its early foray into wireless, prior to the network operator creating the initial management team to build its nationwide 5G network.

"I certainly don't want to talk about Dish," Sorond said. But she said that lowband spectrum like NextNav's 900MHz is valuable.

Indeed, T-Mobile announced plans in 2022 to purchase lowband 600MHz licenses from Columbia Capital in a deal worth $3.5 billion.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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