Industry Voices — Lowenstein: Whatever happened to some previously hyped wireless projects?

Question mark on zeroes and ones background
The saga of LightSquared/Ligado has been going on for 10+ years. (XtockImages / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Mark Lowenstein

Most of the news in the comms landscape is focused on 5G, Covid, broadband and CBRS. But I’ve been thinking about a host of initiatives that received quite a bit of attention and hype in their day but seem to have disappeared from view: LTE Broadcast; Globalstar’s TLPS; TV White Spaces; AT&T’s Project AirGig; T-Mobile’s TV Service; MulteFire; LightSquared/Ligado. Here’s an update on these projects, with my subjective call on their status.

LightSquared/Ligado. The saga of this 10+ year project has all the makings for a great Netflix series or successor to Showtime’s Billions. The original idea, born as LightSquared, was to use L-band spectrum to build a satellite-terrestrial 4G LTE network. After years of ups and downs, mainly due to opposition over interference issues, the project basically died. In 2016, LightSquared was reborn as Ligado, with a modified plan to use  40 MHz of spectrum licenses in the nationwide block between 1.5 GHz and 1.6 GHz for 5G and IoT. This mid-band spectrum could offer MNOs such as Verizon a nice capacity boost in advance of the C-band, potentially integrated into dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). 
STATUS: Looking more promising. In April 2020, after four years of consideration, the FCC approved Ligado’s application. But there continue to be concerns about interference. If nothing else, this one’s been a bonanza for the lawyers and lobbyists.

LTE Broadcast, also known as LTE Multicast and eMBMS, was announced with great fanfare circa 2014. The idea was to deliver content, such as TV or radio, to multiple devices through a select cell site or a cluster of cell sites. There was an SDK, a bunch of white papers, and several high-profile trials. But there’s been little news in 4+ years, which tells me the industry has moved on. 
STATUS: Put a fork in it. It’s now all about 5G.

Globalstar TLPS. Globalstar’s multi-year battle to enable its 2.4 GHz spectrum holdings to be allowed for terrestrial use as a private extension of 802.11 was ultimately not successful. However, in 2017, Globalstar received regulatory approval to designate 10 MHz of spectrum as Band 53 for LTE, and in 2019 also received 5G NR approval from the 3GPP. This could be a viable solution for private LTE globally, and in the United States it has potential for carrier aggregation with CBRS and LAA. 
STATUS: Resuscitated, but still a long road ahead. Globalstar has received commitments from some smaller chipset vendors (i.e. not Qualcomm), and it has support from Airspan and Nokia for base stations. The next stage is to get Band 53 in chipsets in 2021 and then an ecosystem of devices.

TV White Space. Starting about 10 years ago, a lot of work went into a proposal to put the unused channels between the active ones in the VHF and UHF spectrum to commercial use for mobile broadband service, particularly in rural areas. Tech heavyweights such as Microsoft and Google got majorly behind this. This is a project that spent nearly a decade in various forms of regulatory purgatory. In March 2019, the FCC issued a report allowing the use of white spaces in several channel slots. Since then, Microsoft, and others have been battling with the NAB over interference and geo-location issues.  
STATUS: Back from the dead. The FCC approved higher power limits and antenna heights for TVWS on units far from TV stations. And with greater focus and dollars on rural broadband, TVWS is on the map again.

RELATED: Microsoft’s TV white space proposal moves forward

AT&T Project AirGig. About five years ago, AT&T started floating this exciting idea to use electric power lines to string broadband internet equipment. AirGig could be used for myriad ‘last mile’ applications for backhaul, fixed wireless, and even 5G combining LTE and mmWave. AT&T has applied for 500+ patents for items like low-cost plastic antennas, radio distributed antenna system (RDAS), millimeter wave (mmWave) surface wave launchers, and inductive power devices. 
STATUS: Still kicking. AT&T continues to run field trials for numerous applications of the technology. Commercial viability and timing are still unknown. There has been opposition from some groups concerned about radiation. 

T-Mobile TV (TVision). In 2018, T-Mobile spent $325 million to acquire Layer 3, with the idea to be the mobile broadband entry into the vMPVD (worst acronym ever) universe. The TVision service was launched a little over a year ago in six cities, with relatively little marketing. Since then, let’s say TMO has been "distracted" by other priorities. There have been no new posts on the TVision blog since late 2019 and no new markets launched. 
STATUS: Back-burnered but not dead. There are rumors that T-Mobile is working with MobiTV, which offers an app-based streaming platform used by cable operators and other service providers and works on multiple streaming devices. This would be an important step toward offering the service on a nationwide basis. However, given some of the bleeding in the vMPVD space (AT&T TV Now and Sling TV have been losing subscribers, and Sony exited the market), T-Mobile might well be reevaluating this initiative against other priorities. 

MulteFire. This concept of using LTE or 5G NR in unlicensed or shared spectrum was announced with quite a bit of fanfare nearly five years ago, with Qualcomm as the main initial promulgator. Over the years, MuteFire has progressed, building an alliance of key players across the ecosystem, and announcing a certification program for select geographies and spectrum bands. But things have been awfully quiet in recent months. 
STATUS: Middling. It’s difficult to see MulteFire gaining widespread adoption. It’s no longer focused on the U.S. market, since LAA is being used for unlicensed channel aggregation and CBRS is the primary avenue for private LTE, for now. MulteFire is an option for private LTE in the 5 GHz band in some countries. The last major announcement was a certification program for 1.9 GHz in Japan. But there’s been little news from the MulteFire Alliance in nearly nine months.

As I explored some of these, it’s a reminder that many high-profile projects spend years riding a regulatory roller-coaster. In a separate category are projects, such as LTE Broadcast, and possibly TVision and MulteFire, that seem to sputter out with little fanfare.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.