Despite major pushback from the Department of Defense (DoD), the FCC today announced that it unanimously approved, with conditions, Ligado’s application to deploy a low-power terrestrial nationwide network in the L-Band to support 5G and IoT services.
The move wasn’t entirely unexpected – FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced (PDF) on Thursday that he was circulating a draft order approving Ligado’s plans, which have languished at the commission for years. The final vote came as the DoD and other federal agencies increasingly sound the horn about their concerns over potential interference with the military’s use of GPS.
The Department continues to support domestic 5G options, but not at the risk of crippling our GPS networks. Nearly a dozen other federal agencies have joined us in opposing this proposal.— @EsperDoD (@EsperDoD) April 18, 2020
C4ISRNET reported on April 10 that a vote appeared imminent, citing sources who said what changed was both a growing interest from the White House in the economic and political benefits of expanding 5G capabilities, as well as an increased sense in parts of the government that GPS concerns may be exaggerated.
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The FCC said the order approving Ligado’s application was adopted without dissent and will promote more efficient and effective use of the nation’s spectrum resources and ensure that adjacent band operations, including GPS, are protected from harmful interference.
“I thank my colleagues for coming together on a bipartisan basis to support Ligado’s application,” Chairman Pai said in a statement. “The vote at the Commission reflects the broad, bipartisan support that this order has received, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr on the one hand to Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Congresswoman Doris Matsui of California on the other. This vote is another step forward for American leadership in 5G and advanced wireless services.”
It wasn’t clear how the company was going to build a 5G/IoT network even before the coronavirus crisis, but the expectation for a long time has been that Ligado would most likely try to sell its spectrum rights to a wireless operator – perhaps Verizon.
LightShed Partners analysts Walter Piecyk and Joe Galone last year described how Ligado’s spectrum presents an opportunity for operators like Verizon. At the time, they suggested Ligado could supply an operator like Verizon with at least two years of wireless data growth.
However, consultant Tim Farrar of TMF Associates said Ligado needs to make an attempt to sell the spectrum before the C-band auction, which is currently scheduled to start in December, if it is to fit into Verizon’s plans. “But Verizon is unlikely to be interested in paying billions of dollars for Ligado’s spectrum,” he said. “So if nothing happens by the end of the year, Ligado may be in trouble and need to restructure its ~$7B in debt.”
In statements released today, Ligado executives pointed to the company’s plans to use satellite and terrestrial services to deploy customized private networks and deliver IoT solutions to the industrial sector.
Timothy Donahue, former Nextel Communications CEO and current director on Ligado’s board, said the FCC’s full backing will help ensure the country’s 5G ecosystem has a full spectrum pipeline without critical gaps.
“The agreement among the commissioners provides much-needed certainty in the L-band and shows that Washington can work together to give hope to enterprises and consumers who desperately need it,” he said in a statement. “Ultimately, we see the order simply as a work order for our employees, vendors, customers, and technology partners, and we look forward to delivering on the new opportunities the commissioners have enabled.”
In the order approving Ligado’s application, the FCC said it included stringent conditions to ensure that incumbents would not experience harmful interference. For example, Ligado must provide a 23-megahertz guard band using its own licensed spectrum to separate its terrestrial base station transmissions from neighboring operations. In addition, Ligado is required to limit the power levels of its base stations to 9.8 dBW, which represents a reduction of 99.3% from the power levels Ligado originally proposed in its 2015 application.