Private Networks

Spectrum Shift: Anterix Says It's Not Another Ligado

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A small company backed by some big-name executives is asking the FCC for new rules that would allow it to profit from its spectrum holdings.

No, it's not Ligado (formerly Lightsquared), a company asking for new FCC rules for its spectrum. And no, it's not Rivada or M2Z Networks either, which have floated similar proposals in the past.

This time it's Anterix (formerly pdvWireless), and at least one analyst believes the company will succeed where a number of others have not.

"We continue to believe imminent [FCC] Report and Order is more likely to arrive perhaps in 1Q20," wrote the analysts at Wall Street research firm B. Riley FBR in a report on Anterix. If Anterix does gain FCC approval for its plans, the company could then begin leasing its spectrum to utility companies, enterprises and others for the construction of private wireless networks. If it succeeds, Anterix is targeting $150 million in revenues by 2024 on margins up to 80%, B. Riley FBR noted.

4G LTE in 900MHz
At issue is a five-year-old request for the FCC to realign operations in the 900MHz band (specifically 896-901/935-940MHz) in order to free up space for 4G LTE broadband wireless networks. Anterix -- which counts Nextel co-founder Morgan O'Brien as its new CEO -- holds roughly 60% of the 900MHz spectrum licenses in the top 20 metropolitan market areas in the US. Current FCC regulations prohibit the company from deploying an LTE network in that spectrum.

Thus the company's big ask: "Our spectrum is our most valuable asset," the company wrote in a recent SEC filing. "Our first priority is to continue to pursue our initiatives at the FCC seeking to modernize and realign a portion of the 900MHz band to increase its usability and capacity by allowing it to accommodate the deployment of broadband networks, technologies and solutions."

The FCC held a proceeding on this topic last year, and companies ranging from Southern California Edison to UPS have voiced their opinion on the matter. That's because there are already several networks around the country using the 900MHz band that would be affected by any realignment. In other words, 900MHz incumbents might have to upgrade some or all of their existing network equipment to make room for Anterix's planned LTE operations.

"NextEra does not oppose allowing individual markets to reconfigure on a truly voluntary basis, if all narrowband incumbents are provided a choice, are protected from interference, and are fully reimbursed for all costs they incur as part of any relocation plan," the company -- one of the largest utility companies in the US -- wrote in its filing to the FCC on the matter. NextEra isn't directly opposed to Anterix's proposal, but argues 900MHz incumbents be subject to voluntary rather than mandatory realignments.

Anterix, for its part, is working to counter such concerns. For example, the company has already inked a major exchange of spectrum with the Association of American Railroads that the train group said will allow it to "form a wideband channel that can be used for a variety of future train safety-related applications."

Anterix also is trying to drum up support by testing LTE networks in its spectrum with the likes of Missouri utility company Ameren and Delmarva Power and Light Company, a subsidiary of utility giant Exelon. Further, Anterix last year helped form the Utility Broadband Alliance (UBBA), in part to generate interest among utilities specifically for private wireless networks -- networks that could run on Anterix spectrum.

Reversing historic precedent
Anterix today sits in almost the exact same position as Ligado. Both companies own spectrum that currently cannot be used for 4G or 5G operations because of FCC regulations, and both companies are asking the agency to issue new rules that would change that situation. Further, Anterix counts O'Brien in its corner, while Ligado traces its corporate lineage back to billionaire Philip Falcone.

But Anterix is clearly hoping for a smoother journey than Ligado. After all, LightSquared filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and re-emerged three years later as Ligado. (Falcone exited the picture at the same time.) Since then, Ligado has signed agreements with some of the companies opposed to its spectrum-realignment plans. However, after both the NTIA and US Department of Defense came out in recent months against Ligado's plans, the company is now preparing for another bankruptcy, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal this month.

"We're confident that the FCC now has everything they need" to make a decision, Anterix's O'Brien said. "We feel good about the process."

Rob Schwartz, Anterix's president and COO, told Light Reading the company has managed to flip many of its initial opponents over to its side. There is a growing consensus around the notion of new FCC rules that would allow broadband 4G LTE operations in the 900MHz band, outside of Anterix's specific request, he argued.

"It is evident... that Anterix and its partners are doing a good job of keeping low-band spectrum near the head of the table for when the FCC is able to move," wrote the analysts at B. Riley FBR.

And if the FCC does indeed eventually side with Anterix, Schwartz said the company is ready to pounce on its opportunity. "We've got a really robust pipeline" of possible customers, he said.

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

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