Globalstar positions its 2.4 GHz as prime for LTE small cells

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With Globalstar having secured the FCC’s blessing to use its licensed 2.4 GHz satellite spectrum for terrestrial purposes, it’s setting out on an aggressive path in 2017 to put that spectrum to use—mainly in the name of small cells.

Right before Christmas on Dec. 23, the FCC approved Globalstar’s request to pursue a terrestrial wireless network using 11.5 megahertz of its satellite spectrum at 2483.5-2495 MHz. The unanimous FCC approval came about six weeks after Globalstar presented a revised plan that eliminated the most controversial parts of its earlier request, which included a proposal to use 10.5 megahertz in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band, which led to objections over interference concerns and the implication that Globalstar would be afforded special rights.

During a conference call with investment analysts and media on Friday morning, Globalstar Chairman and CEO Jay Monroe thanked the FCC and a host of parties that participated in the lengthy proceeding, including several that had been adversaries in the past, for contributing to what Globalstar sees as a win in the end. The FCC’s order gives it access to a unique swath of spectrum that is particularly well-suited for small cells, which is where so many operators are focusing their buildouts, and presents opportunities from an international harmonization perspective, according to the satellite company.

RELATED: Globalstar gets approval to build low-power terrestrial network with its satellite spectrum at 2.4 GHz

Globalstar switched from an earlier plan using the 802.11 standard to one that uses an LTE-based protocol, providing economies of scale and the chance to work with wireless carriers or others. Asked by industry analyst Craig Moffett about potential partners and whether there are limitations in Globalstar’s current negotiations given the incentive auction is still going on, Monroe said it’s difficult to imagine a true go-it-alone strategy for Globalstar; it’s not large enough and it doesn’t have the financial resources.

However, “you can imagine a myriad of other choices from revenue-sharing concepts to lease concepts to prepaid lease concepts” that could happen across a number of categories, be they tech, cable, carriers or others. “There are parties out there that have surfaced in part of this negotiation which are different than ones that we have ever thought of before,” Monroe said. “We don’t yet have a specific plan. It’s important to us that we retain optionality and now that it’s the new year and the order is clear, we intend to dig in aggressively” to monetize the spectrum.

John Dooley, managing director of Jarvinian Ventures, was on hand to describe the unique technical properties that Globalstar’s 2.4 GHz spectrum represents—spectrum that is next to the very crowded 2.4 GHz public Wi-Fi band but is clean as a whistle. “We have some of the most polluted spectrum in the inventory next to some of the cleanest,” that is well curated and pristine, so when they begin to use it for small cells, they know it will be stable for data communications, he said.  

Monroe also took the opportunity to clarify some things that have been floating around about the company, which has been the target of short sellers over the years at the same it has attracted loyal individual investors. He reiterated that the company is committed to its satellite business and has second-generation products in the pipeline.  

RELATED: Sprint supports Globalstar’s revised proposal in 2.4 GHz band

While it’s not clear who will be using Globalstar’s spectrum, there’s also the question of who will support it in handsets and devices. Phone makers typically don’t include spectrum bands in their phones unless they’re persuaded to do so by carriers as big as AT&T or Verizon, noted industry consultant and TMF Associates President Tim Farrar.

It also remains to be seen if Globalstar’s approach of not using 3GPP to establish a standard band plan is practical. “It seems hard to imagine that handset manufacturers like Apple with Band 41 in their phones (which is not compatible with the Globalstar spectrum due to the inclusion of co-existence filters) will simply change that in order to implement a non-standard band, or that most cellular operators would be interested in this spectrum without some level of standardization,” Farrar told FierceWirelessTech.

Sprint, holder of 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses, got on board with Globalstar’s revised proposal back in November after adjustments were made, mainly related to the out-of-band emissions (OOBE) limit at the upper edge of Globalstar’s licensed spectrum at 2495 MHz. But it’s not clear that Sprint would be interested in using Globalstar’s spectrum—Sprint has boasted about its vast 2.5 GHz holdings for years and appears to have plenty at its disposal.

It makes sense that TD-LTE is the primary standard that Globalstar will be using, Farrar said, adding that it’s notable that Sprint is operating with aggregated 20 MHz carriers so that there is 40 MHz of spectrum on each mini site and 60 MHz on each macro site. “By the time small cells are as widespread as Globalstar suggests, a single 10 MHz carrier may be too small, since it will have a limited peak data rate, far below the 1 Gbps+ being targeted for 5G,” he said. “Used on its own, a single 10 MHz channel would require far more sites (with associated buildout, site rental and backhaul costs) compared to an approach with 20-60 MHz of spectrum per site.”

Internationally, there is an ample supply of 2.5 GHz spectrum, with many mobile operators holding 20-40 MHz in this band, so they have no need to use spectrum from Globalstar, Farrar said. “Maybe Globalstar can come up with a partner outside the mobile industry, but interest from companies like Google in investing in the wireless sector appears to have waned significantly in the last year or so,” he noted.

Of course, Globalstar remains optimistic about its prospects. "We just got a tremendous report and order for us, it was unanimous" and many participants in the process who were initially against it in the past could even become partners in the future, Monroe said. "You should expect very interesting announcements from Globalstar in 2017."