The battle over the L-Band for 5G is getting heated. And that likely comes as a disappointment to the likes of Verizon and T-Mobile that are undoubtedly looking for more spectrum for their 5G networks.
Noise on the issue reached a new high point this week when the acting head of the NTIA, Douglas Kinkoph, urged the FCC not to approve Ligado's proposal to release its L-Band spectrum for 5G. "Despite the considerable efforts to find a satisfactory solution, NTIA, on behalf of the executive branch, is unable to recommend the Commission's approval of the Ligado applications," he wrote.
Kinkoph's position on the topic lines up with that of US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who sent a similar letter to the FCC last month urging the agency to deny Ligado's petition to release the L-Band for 5G.
Ligado immediately pounced on Kinkoph's letter this week, calling his arguments around 5G "stunning and absurd." The company said there is a desperate need in the wireless industry for more spectrum for 5G, and that its L-Band holdings would help satisfy that need. The company urged the FCC to ignore the NTIA and Department of Defense (DoD) -- agencies within the US government's executive branch -- and instead to approve its L-Band spectrum petition.
"It is time to bring an end to the irregular and unreasonable delay caused by some Executive Branch entities that has plagued this proceeding, just as it has plagued other important FCC spectrum initiatives," Ligado wrote.
Worries over GPS
At the heart of the issue is a desire by Ligado to use its L-Band spectrum for a terrestrial wireless network and not a satellite network, which is what the spectrum was originally licensed for. That's what Ligado wanted to do in 2010 when it launched as LightSquared, and that's what it wanted to do when it emerged from bankruptcy in 2016 as Ligado. That's still what it wants to do today.
However, for the past decade critics have argued that repurposing Ligado's L-Band spectrum for a terrestrial network will cause interference to the nation's GPS operations, which work in a nearby spectrum band. Those were the concerns that dogged LightSquared in 2010 and those are still the concerns that critics ranging from Garmin to Iridium to Airlines for America, a trade association for the airline industry, levied against the company in recent weeks.
What this means for wireless operators
The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) -- which represents smaller wireless network operators like T-Mobile, Sprint, Shentel and U.S. Cellular -- has loudly sided with Ligado, and is urging the FCC to release the company's L-Band spectrum for 5G.
"NTIA's recent letter brings nothing new to the table and fails to make a valid case against the Ligado applications," the CCA wrote in a statement distributed to the media this week. "While NTIA states that it is 'unable to recommend the Commission's approval' of the applications, it does not recommend dismissing the proceeding, and NTIA's statement that preventing terrestrial access to mid-band spectrum where feasible will not hold back timely deployment of services is plainly wrong."
But some analysts believe Verizon and T-Mobile are the operators that have the most interest in Ligado's proceeding at the FCC. Specifically, the Wall Street research analysts at LightShed partners wrote recently that Verizon and T-Mobile both need extra spectrum in major US metro areas to keep up with customers' data traffic.
Indeed, the desire for more spectrum is the driving reason behind T-Mobile's proposal to merge with Sprint and obtain that operator's vast 2.5GHz spectrum holdings.
"Ligado's spectrum offers incremental wireless data capacity, which is needed not only for the ongoing wireless data growth on existing LTE networks, but also to enable higher use 5G customers," the LightShed analysts wrote. "We believe Ligado could supply an operator like Verizon with at least two years of wireless data growth on a network."
Further, the L-Band is becoming increasingly important, according to the LightShed analysts, because operators like Verizon and T-Mobile may not see more midband spectrum like the L-Band for 5G anytime soon. Specifically, the analysts said it will likely take the FCC at least three years to release the majority of the C-Band for 5G, and that "we are skeptical that the FCC can deliver on their promise of a C-Band auction in 2020."
The next step in Ligado's L-Band process will likely be some kind of ruling on the topic by the FCC. Given the opposition from the NTIA and DoD, it's unclear whether the FCC's chairman will move forward on this long-running but contentious topic.