LightSquared, the sequel? FCC weighs Globalstar’s plan to use satellite airwaves for Wi-Fi

We’ve heard this story before. A satellite company wants to repurpose its orbit-to-ground airwaves for a terrestrial use – boosting the value of its spectrum in process – and goes to the Federal Communications Commission for permission. Unlike the fiasco that was LightSquared, though, Globalstar’s(s gsat) petition to convert its satellite spectrum into a private Wi-Fi band might actually have a happy ending.

On Friday the FCC agreed to kick off the review process that could turn 11.5 MHz of Globalstar’s S-band satellite spectrum into airwaves it could use for wireless broadband use. Globalstar’s plan is to combine those airwaves with adjacent unlicensed 2.4 GHz frequencies to create a 22 MHz band for a private Wi-Fi network.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos with the Kindle Fire HDX

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos with the Kindle Fire HDX

And what would Globalstar with such a network? It would sell capacity to companies looking for dedicated bandwidth without dealing with the expense of linking to a full-bore 4G mobile broadband network. At the top of that list of potential clients is Amazon(s amzn), which could be looking for an alternative carrier for its Whispernet services.

Of course, LightSquared’s similar attempts to refarm – and cash in on – its satellite spectrum for terrestrial use went down in flames after a drag-down fight with GPS industry. Globalstar’s petition, however, has a much better chance of succeeding for a couple of reasons:

  • Globalstar isn’t trying to build a high-powered LTE network in its spectrum. The potential for LTE to interfere with nearby GPS signals derailed LightSquared’s plans. While there are interference concerns with other radios like Bluetooth using nearby bands, Wi-Fi is a much lower power technology than LTE.
  • The FCC has definitely shown willingness to approve such terrestrial refarming in the past for the sake of creating new spectrum for wireless data use. Dish Network(s dish) last year won FCC permission to use its 2 GHz spectrum for an LTE network.

Still the FCC appears to make caution a priority in its rule making process. Though the commission announced its intentions before newly confirmed chairman Tom Wheeler took office, Wheeler seemed to have a lot of input on the commission’s order, according to satellite broadband analyst and Gigaom contributor Tim Farrar. From Farrar’s blog:

As the language perhaps reflects Wheeler’s more cautious stance compared to former Chairman [Julius] Genachowski’s “full speed ahead” approach, it is hard to predict what this will mean for Globalstar’s potential approval process. However, it is clear that it will take some time, because the FCC is seeking detailed technical studies from commenting parties, and has set a relatively long comment deadline of 75 days after publication in the Federal Register (i.e. January or February 2014).

Tom Wheeler

Globalstar’s petition could have plenty of merits, but after the political firestorm in the wake of the LightSquared fiasco, the FCC may feel it’s best tread to carefully. Wheeler only today appointed his staff – among them Public Knowledge founder and consumer firebrand Gigi Sohn – and took the oath of office. He has a huge spectrum auction to prepare for as well as several big communications policy debates. The last thing he wants to do is get mired down in a spectrum controversy.