Ligado's 5G Ambitions Take One (Tiny) Step Forward

Mike Dano
4/18/2019
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Remember Ligado? It's the company that arose from the ashes of Philip Falcone's failed LightSquared effort, and it wants to build a 5G network using 40MHz of prime, mid-band spectrum backed up by its array of satellites.

Although Ligado's existing satellite communications business has been steadily moving along, providing connections for public safety workers and others, its 5G ambitions have been tangled up in more than a decade of squabbles among commercial and government users worried that a terrestrial network running in Ligado's spectrum holdings will cause interference weather-monitoring stations and other technologies.

While many of those issues still have not yet been fully addressed, the FCC this week took a very small step forward on an issue that's related to Ligado's 5G ambitions. And that step has been heralded by Ligado officials as a signal that the US government may finally make some definitive decisions about its broader 5G proposal.

Specifically, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said this week that the agency will vote next month on a proposal to re-allocate a small slice of spectrum -- 5MHz between 1675MHz and 1680 MHz -- for shared use between federal and commercial users.

Ligado cheered the move: "This NPRM [Notice of Proposed Rule Making] has significant potential to free up critical mid-band spectrum that will help ensure the United States commercializes the wireless spectrum necessary to accelerate, strengthen, and secure 5G networks across the country," Ligado Networks Board Chairman Ivan Seidenberg said in a release. (Seidenberg is a major player in the wireless industry, having formerly served as chairman and CEO of Verizon.) "As a company, we are ready to invest in this spectrum and help deploy the 5G technologies that will not only improve all our lives but also give our economy a competitive edge against the rest of the world."

A government analysis estimates that 5MHz chunk of spectrum between 1675MHz and 1680 MHz is worth around $600 million -- that's not surprising considering the wireless industry is clamoring for that kind of mid-band spectrum for 5G. But to Ligado that 5MHz is a key element of the company's broader 5G strategy.


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So why does Ligado care so much about this seemingly random bit of spectrum? It's because the company wants to add it to the existing 35MHz of spectrum it already owns in a nearby spectrum band, thus creating a 40MHz block of mid-band spectrum that Ligado has said it will spend $800 million to build into a nationwide 5G network that uses both satellites and regular, terrestrial cell towers. The company argues such a network would create 8,000 jobs and generate billions of dollars in consumer benefits, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

However, much needs to happen before Ligado can begin building its proposed 5G network. First, the FCC will need to decide exactly how it plans to release that 5MHz chunk of spectrum between 1675MHz and 1680 MHz. Pai said the agency could either auction the spectrum or simply assign it to someone, like Ligado. Ligado of course would be happy to receive it without payment, but said it will bid on the spectrum if it is released for auction.

If the FCC decides to auction the spectrum, that auction likely wouldn't be over until next year at the earliest.

But that's just one element in Ligado's 5G plans. The company still has not received FCC or Department of Commerce approval for the other big part of its plan: To build a terrestrial network with its current 35MHz of spectrum holdings (called the L Band). Those licenses are intended for satellite uses, not for operations on the ground. That element of Ligado's plan -- to build a terrestrial network with its L Band spectrum -- is opposed by a diverse array of entities including government users, weather researchers, aviation groups and others.

Ligado noted recently that it has waited more than three years for some kind of action on the topic of terrestrial operations using its L Band spectrum. Now, given the Trump administration's actions on spectrum and 5G and the FCC's upcoming vote, the company is hoping that its fortunes may finally be changing. (Ligado also appears to have supporters pushing its proposals in various media outlets.)

If Ligado is allowed to move forward with its 5G spectrum plan, it would represent a dramatic turnaround for a company that has been mired in close to a decade of trouble. Ligado traces its corporate lineage to LightSquared -- backed by billionaire investor Philip Falcone -- which launched in 2010 with a plan to build a nationwide, wholesale LTE network that it would resell to other telecom operators or other companies. That plan fell apart after the FCC ruled the proposed network would interfere with GPS signals. LightSquared fell into bankruptcy and Falcone exited the picture, but Ligado arose from LightSquared's ashes in 2015 with a plan to build a 5G network using that same L Band spectrum, but this time focused on the Internet of Things (IoT). In that respect, Ligado is essentially aiming at the same opportunity that Dish Network is targeting -- 5G for the IoT.

Since launching in 2015, Ligado has reached agreements with many of the GPS companies that brought down LightSquared. However, others continue to oppose the company's proposal, and Ligado continues to mostly spin its wheels while it waits for government action on its overall 5G plan.

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

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