For nearly 20 years, Thermo Companies has been quietly making investments in the telecom space by mixing together a blend of 5G assets that includes midband spectrum holdings, fiber transport and technologies related to spectrum efficiency.
However, it's unclear what the investment firm's end goal is. "These investments don't work together like a perfect puzzle at this point. We are trying to get them to be, but we aren't there yet," said Kyle Pickens, VP of strategy at Globalstar and a partner at Thermo Companies.
Thermo is probably best known for its majority ownership of Globalstar. In 2004, the company, which was founded by Jim Lynch and Jay Monroe, invested $700 million in the bankrupt satellite company, not just because it saw potential in the satellite services but also because of Globalstar's spectrum assets. "We thought there was value in the terrestrial spectrum," said Pickens.
But it's taken Thermo (and Globalstar) a long time to actually gain some traction with that terrestrial spectrum. Globalstar first tried to get authority to use its satellite spectrum holdings for terrestrial low power service (TLPS) to boost Wi-Fi networks. After a lot of wrangling with the FCC and Wi-Fi players that opposed the initiative, Globalstar's proposal withered away without support.
Next Thermo turned its attention to getting approval for Globalstar's S-band spectrum, which is Band 53 in the 2.4GHz spectrum range, to be approved for use as an anchor channel for carrier aggregation and licensed assisted access (LAA) in cellular networks. The FCC approved this request in 2017 and also said that Band 53 could be integrated into user equipment. Band 53 offers 11.5MHz of nationwide spectrum within the 2.4GHz band.
Band 53 momentum
Four years later and Band 53 is starting to gain some momentum. Perhaps the biggest endorsement so far occurred last month when Qualcomm announced that its new 5G X65 modem will support Band 53. That announcement means that Band 53 will be incorporated into devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets, as well as IoT modules, that use Qualcomm silicon. The development creates an "opportunity for Globalstar's spectrum in a way that governments cannot, by making it part of a broader, international ecosystem of devices, operating systems and applications," according to the financial analysts at New Street Research.
Qualcomm's announcement follows an alliance that Globalstar formed with Nokia in 2020 to use Band 53 for 4G and 5G private network deployments. In January, Nokia announced that it was using Band 53 spectrum at the Port of Seattle for a private wireless network.
In addition, Globalstar also is working with the New York Power Authority on a trial of Band 53 for a private wireless network.
But perhaps the most intriguing partnership Globalstar has announced so far is its alliance with Xcom, which is the San Diego-based startup created by several former top executives at Qualcomm, including former Chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs. Xcom has been particularly cagey about what exactly it is developing; however, an FCC filing last November provided some details about Xcom's efforts to test advanced MIMO technologies running on open RAN interfaces in an indoor arena. Matt Grob, Xcom's CTO and the former CTO of Qualcomm, told Light Reading in November that the company has developed a technology that will significantly improve the spectral efficiency of systems that use sub-6GHz spectrum.
Globalstar said it is working with Xcom to explore ways it can boost capacity in Band 53, particularly in areas where there could be a lot of traffic such as arenas, airports and multi-tenant buildings. And not only is Thermo working with Xcom on Band 53 capacity, it is also an investor. Pickens said Thermo participated in Xcom's Series A round of funding.
But there's more. Thermo is also an investor in Pivotal Commware, the millimeter-wave (mmWave) startup that is also backed by Bill Gates. Pickens is a member of Pivotal's board.
Pivotal uses holographic beamforming (HBF) to address shortfalls in existing beamforming technology by using software-enabled antennas to narrow the beams so they have better propagation. This also creates less interference. And because the beams are so precisely pinpointed, the spectrum can be reused, making it more efficient.
Pivotal has been working closely with Verizon, which is aggressively deploying 5G using mmWave spectrum, but it's also eying other spectrum bands. Pivotal CEO Brian Deutsch said in a press release that the company plans to expand beyond mmWave spectrum and to other bands, including Band 53 and the C-band.
But Pickens says that Globalstar isn't just looking at the potential for Band 53 in the US. The company also sees it being a valuable asset in other countries as well. Late last year Globalstar received terrestrial authorization to operate in three countries – Canada, Brazil and Kenya – which the company says represents a covered population of 300 million people. The development raises the company's total terrestrial coverage area to roughly 700 million people.
"We have claim to the spectrum around the world because satellite devices use it," Pickens said, adding that the company could potentially license Band 53 with a carrier in another country or work with different types of companies around the world.
Despite all the emphasis on terrestrial licenses, Pickens maintains that Globalstar is committed to operating its satellite business and is making progress marketing the service as an IoT solution.
More than wireless
Thermo's reach expands beyond the wireless realm too. Another early Thermo investment was e.Spire, which the company then reorganized into Xspedius, which was then sold to Time Warner Telecom in exchange for Time Warner Telecom stock.
That Time Warner Telecom stock eventually became Level 3 stock when Level 3 purchased Time Warner Telecom in 2014 and then morphed into CenturyLink stock after CenturyLink purchased Level 3 in 2017. CenturyLink rebranded earlier this year and is now known as Lumen. Thermo is one of the 10 largest shareholders in Lumen, which is in the process of transforming itself from an old-school telco into a fiber powerhouse. At the end of 2020, Lumen had a fiber footprint of 2.4 million homes passed.
Thermo also owns FiberLight, which it purchased in 2003 when it was operating under the name of ACSI Network Technologies. FiberLight provides high-capacity transport services to companies via its miles of fiber that stretch across much of Texas and parts of Washington, D.C. and Virginia.
The company, which just won $1.8 million in the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, now plans to construct a wireless network using 5G and open RAN technologies to deliver broadband services to the underserved.
Pickens says that all of Thermos' investments over the years are all meant to enhance or maximize the Globalstar investment, and he insists that Globalstar is happy being just a spectrum provider and is not trying to be anything more than that. "We keep investing and development but we don't want to build a network," he said.
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.