Wireless lobbyists and consumer groups, recently at odds over the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, have joined forces to push the FCC to approve sharing airwaves for 5G networks.
The Competitive Carriers Association, which includes T-Mobile among its members, and CTIA, whose members include AT&T and Verizon, filed comments with the FCC alongside digital consumer advocacy groups Public Knowledge and New America’s Open Technology Institute this summer urging the commission to approve a request by Ligado Networks to share spectrum used by GPS devices to roll out a 5G cell network.
“[T]he commission should initiate a rulemaking to consider making the 1675-1680 MHz band available via auction for shared commercial use, and to adopt associated service and auction rules,” CTIA said in comments to the FCC. “Repurposing this band for shared commercial use is one more step the commission can take to help accommodate the explosive growth in demand for mobile broadband.”
Public Knowledge and New America said the proposal would bring more competition to the wireless market — a win for consumers.
“In a mobile broadband marketplace which has continued to consolidate over the intervening years, the public interest benefits of additional competition, whether wholesale or direct to consumers, are more palpable than ever,” both groups told the FCC in a joint filing. “[P]ublic interest advocates have explained that additional competition in the mobile broadband space would enable a new ecosystem of hardware, software, and applications, bring much needed competition to a relatively uncompetitive marketplace, and foster the potential for innovation, increased consumer welfare, and job creation.”
Ligado asked the FCC in May to use 40 megahertz of its spectrum to launch a ground-based wireless network, which it would combine with its satellite-based communications system to launch a 5G cellular network.
“By deploying 40 megahertz of smart capacity on midband spectrum, we can create a model of at least a partial 5G network — a next-generation, hybrid satellite-terrestrial network — that will enable 5G use cases and mobile applications that require ultra-reliable, highly secure and pervasive connectivity,” Ligado president and CEO Doug Smith wrote in a May blog post.
Ligado operates a satellite communications network for emergency response, remote monitoring and “other mission-critical applications” for government and industry clients. The company is asking the FCC to modify some licenses of its mid-band spectrum in the 1.6 gigahertz band, near frequencies used by GPS devices, for shared use.
While cellular networks typically operate on low-band spectrum where it’s easiest for signals to travel far distances, carriers expect to run out of much of that spectrum in the next five years as more Americans adopt smartphones to use bandwidth-heavy applications like video streaming.
To keep up with demand carriers including AT&T, Verizon and others are already working on technology to make use of mid and high-band spectrum, where signals weaken, and where carriers plan to use new technology to harness the upper bands to send communications that only have to travel shorter distances.
Though the FCC approved a plan in August to help carriers deploy 5G networks 10 to 100 times faster than today’s 4G LTE, the agency previously denied a similar request by Ligado predecessor LightSquared to launch a 4G service with Sprint, citing concerns it would interfere with GPS devices that operate in the middle bands.
The denial sent LightSquared into bankruptcy in 2012, from which it emerged late last year. In December the company said it successfully worked out shared use agreements with GPS providers Garmin, Trimble Navigation and Deere & Co. to dispel any fears of interference, and that could eventually free up more than 50 MHz of spectrum for cellular use.
The company rebranded itself as Ligado in February. In its new plan pitched to the FCC in May, the company assured the Federal Aviation Administration it would maintain power levels that won’t interfere with air traffic. Ligado also said it would support an FCC auction of spectrum adjacent to its mid-band spectrum, under the condition the winning bidder pays for “high-speed Internet access and cloud-based distribution of weather data” for academics and non-profits, and that it address interference concerns expressed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA transmits data in the middle bands.
“While moving this spectrum forward toward the future, Ligado will also ensure that its current users, both licensed and those ‘listening in,’ are not harmed,” Ligado told the FCC in August. “If Ligado prevails at auction, it will meet all FCC requirements imposed on the licensee in connection with the band, will ensure that NOAA’s operations are protected, and will make sure that non-NOAA users continue to enjoy access to the NOAA data they currently use.”
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s 5G plan adopted in July asks for additional comments on approving the use of more high-band spectrum and spectrum sharing.