A look inside Globalstar’s plan to build an exclusive nationwide Wi-Fi network

Most people who know Globalstar know it for its world phones. Its constellation of satellites whiz through their orbits just above the Earth’s atmosphere connecting handsets almost anywhere in the world, from the deepest rain forests of the Amazon to mountains of Afghanistan.

But Globalstar has plans to become more than just a satellite company. If a proposal before the FCC to allow Wi-Fi use on its 2.4 GHz satellite spectrum is approved, you could wind up seeing Globalstar service in malls, public plazas and cafes — anywhere where you can find public Wi-Fi today.

Source: Globalstar

One of Globalstar’s satellites (Source: Globalstar)

Instead of connecting voice conversations to specialty handsets, Globalstar would be supplying data links to everyday tablets, smartphones and laptops. And instead of beaming those signals from the heavens, it would be using the same Wi-Fi access points found everywhere today.

The big difference between Globalstar’s network and regular Wi-Fi is that it would be private. By private, I don’t just mean secured like your home Wi-Fi network; I mean private in the sense that Globalstar and its customers would enjoy exclusive access to those airwaves.

“This would be a Globalstar managed service, but otherwise it will look and feel just like any other global Wi-Fi network,” Globalstar VP of Regulatory Affairs Barbee Ponder told me in a recent interview.

We’ve already started to see hints of this network pop up as part of Globalstar’s trials, and the location of several of those trials just happen to be in Amazon’s test labs in Silicon Valley. Globalstar won’t comment on any of its trial partners, but it’s not hard to imagine a company like Amazon(s amzn) seeing potential in a private Wi-Fi network to power WhisperNet.

Make way for a new acronym: TLPS

Globalstar is calling this proposed Terrestrial Low Power Service, and the element it wants you to focus on is “low power.” Other satellite providers like LightSquared have tried to build ground-based networks with their extraterrestrial frequencies, but faced plenty of resistance. The problem is they’ve proposed building high-power LTE networks, the signals from which cause interference with networks in neighboring bands.

Globalstar is trying to avoid that problem by working within Wi-Fi’s short-range and low-power limitations instead of trying to build a big intrusive 4G system. But sticking to the Wi-Fi spec also gives plenty of advantages. Most Wi-Fi devices and router already work in its chunk of the 2.4 GHz band, requiring only a software upgrade to access it. Instead of commissioning specialty equipment, Globalstar could build its network with existing Wi-Fi gear, Ponder said.

What a TLPS network might look (source: Globalstar)

What a TLPS network might look (source: Globalstar)

In fact, it might not even have to build a network at all. Though Ponder said Globalstar isn’t planning to farm out its physical network, if it chose to it could just give wireless ISPs permission to transmit in its airwaves.

Globalstar’s satellites beam signals down to Earth on the same bands, but Ponder said Globalstar isn’t worried about interfering with its own network because the two systems focus on entirely different geographies. Just as are there are no Wi-Fi hotspots in the middle desert, there’s really no need for a satellite phone in urban areas where cellular service is readily available.

If TLPS gets the okay, Globalstar plans to start with a network of 20,000 hotspots covering schools, hospitals and charities, all of which would get access to the network free of charge. But Globalstar’s plan is to expand that network to all manner of public spaces, and charge carriers, ISPs and device makers to access it.

Source: Ruckus Wireless

Source: Ruckus Wireless

Why would such companies want to use Globalstar’s TLPS rather than regular Wi-Fi? Well, they would get access to the equivalent of a private small cell 3G or 4G network. TLPS would only support a single 22 MHz Wi-Fi channel — compared to the hundreds of megahertz available to unlicensed Wi-Fi — but because it would be a private band, Globalstar could get a lot more mileage out of that sparse bandwidth.

Since only Globalstar and its customers could access those airwaves for Wi-Fi, it wouldn’t have to worry about “rogue” access points mucking up its signals, and it could plan its network much like a cellular grid, spacing nodes at the appropriate intervals to minimize interference and maximize capacity.

The unlicensed airwaves are a mess — albeit a wonderful mess — of competing signals. With TLPS, Globalstar can instill order onto the chaos in its own parallel band. That setup could prove very attractive to a company like Amazon, AT&T(s t) or even Apple(s aapl) looking to give its customers access to a boutique Wi-Fi network.

You knew there had to be a controversy, right?

Globalstar’s plan might seem like its wrapped up all pretty in a neat little bow, but as is always the case when talking about repurposing spectrum for another use, it’s not that simple.

First off, Globalstar can’t do TLPS with its spectrum alone: it only has access to 11.5 MHz in its satellite band. To get to a full 22 MHz Wi-Fi channel, it’s asking the FCC to let it tap a 10.5 MHz hunk of frequencies in the neighboring unlicensed band. The spectrum it’s interested in is a kind of no-man’s land today. It can’t be used by Wi-Fi because there’s not enough bandwidth in it to form a proper Wi-Fi channel. Also, a lot of unlicensed users steer clear of it to avoid interfering with Globalstar’s orbital network. Bluetooth, however, has staked out its territory in the band.

The 2.4 GHz band with Wi-Fi channels. Globalstar's TLPS is in orance (Source: Globalstar)

The 2.4 GHz band with Wi-Fi channels. Globalstar’s TLPS is in orange (Source: Globalstar)

Globalstar claims that the 10.5 MHz swath is so lightly used that the FCC might as well let it have access to it so it could put it work in a wireless broadband network. The Wi-Fi Alliance and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group are a bit more skeptical. Both have filed objections with the FCC to Globalstar’s plans, wanting assurances that TLPS’s encroachment onto their turf won’t knock out their devices.

In addition, Globalstar recently raised the ire of the Wi-Fi industry it’s been trying to placate. The FCC is weighing opening up more airwaves for Wi-Fi use in the 5 GHz band. For a while Globalstar was the sole opponent to the plan, claiming Wi-Fi would interfere with its sky-to-ground satellite links in the same spectrum. Globalstar and the plan’s proponents eventually came to a compromise, and the proposal is on the FCC’s meeting agenda this month. But the incident didn’t sit well with unlicensed spectrum advocates.

As Public Knowledge SVP and legal director Harold Feld put it, on the one hand Globalstar is asking for spectrum freebies at the expense of the unlicensed band, and on the other hand it tried to throw roadblocks in the way of creating more spectrum for unlicensed use. That takes a lot of chutzpah and it’s a pretty good indication that Globalstar TLPS won’t play nice with regular Wi-Fi if its allowed to build its network, Feld wrote in in his Wetmachine blog.

The FCC is looking favorably on Globalstar’s proposal, according to Ponder, and it has a lot of reasons to. The government is desperately searching for ways to put more spectrum to broadband use, and Globalstar’s plan definitely fits the ticket.

But there’s a larger debate here about whether the government should be favoring unlicensed use of the public airwaves, which everyone is free to access, or licensed use, in which a single company has sole control over a set of airwaves. That’s a debate we’ll see played out in the coming months.