04.13.20

Solving real problems doesn’t mean bailing out fake business plans

Posted in LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Services, Spectrum at 1:41 pm by timfarrar

No I’m not talking about SpaceX and the RDOF auction, I’m returning to a topic I haven’t written about for years (but also provided plenty of opportunities for pointing out the idiocy of some billionaires), that of Ligado.

Over the last year there’s been a great deal of dysfunction at the NTIA, leading to the unfortunate loss of David Redl and what Oscar Wilde might have described as the “careless” loss of Diane Rinaldo. These problems were amply summed up in Redl’s speech a few days before he resigned, where he noted that:

“In this era of competition for spectrum resources, it can be easy to think that we’re in a winner-take-all battle, but that mindset asks us to make false choices that will shortchange America. For example, we don’t have to choose between making more spectrum available for the private sector and sustaining our critical government systems. We also don’t have to choose between terrestrial 5G and satellite services.”

Although it is not the only area where these problems have been manifested (and the fight over the 24GHz spectrum auction was far more important), Ligado has employed its usual lobbying tactics of attempting to secure high level political backing (just like in 2010-11), apparently getting former acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney to push the FCC into drafting an order to approve Ligado’s application last fall (which is why Defense Secretary Esper’s November 18 letter to Chairman Pai was specifically copied to him) and more recently even persuading Attorney General Barr to make the bizarre proposal that Ligado’s L-band spectrum could be used in conjunction with C-band as part of a plan to counter China, which would involve the “United States aligning itself with Nokia and/or Ericsson through American ownership of a controlling stake” in these companies.

Of course this latest business plan is just as much nonsense as the previous business plans presented by Ligado and its predecessor companies in their attempts to persuade the FCC to grant them a license, because other countries are deploying TDD networks in their C-band spectrum for the entirely logically reason that it maximizes the performance of MIMO, and are never going to approve use of L-band uplinks in satellite spectrum in any case. Why would US telcos decide to do anything other than follow suit?

But Ligado’s management has the singular objective of securing regulatory approval and keeping their jobs, rather than actually developing something that would be economically valuable, just like their prior business plans to provide a dual mode satellite-terrestrial network for utilities (despite seamless roaming from terrestrial to satellite mode being impossible), promise rural LTE service using satellite capacity that cost $10,000 per Gbyte, or meet the supposedly “vast global demand” for dual mode satellite phones that turned out to amount to fewer than 2000 phones when Terrestar tried to sell them.

So let’s take a step back. What is the problem we are trying to solve here? Is this really about whether Ligado gets a worthless approval that does nothing to benefit 5G one way or the other? Or is it really what Commissioner O’Rielly’s letter last week asked the President to do, to make sure that the DoD (and other agencies) do not simply get to veto any reallocation of spectrum within IRAC, and instead the NTIA works to properly balance competing spectrum interests, as Redl said last year?

Ligado’s current proposal, that the FCC simply ignore the NTIA’s public recommendation (which was set out even more forcefully in another letter from Associate Administrator Doug Kinkoph last Friday) and “bring an end to…this proceeding“, would make things worse not better. If the NTIA has stated on the record that “We believe that the Commission cannot reasonably reach such a conclusion [that the harmful interference concerns have been resolved]” then the next step is to set up a process to resolve them, not to simply reject this conclusion. Both sides have behaved badly here, Ligado in claiming that there is no harm whatsoever (when some older high precision devices and perhaps even some DoD systems certainly do need to be replaced) and the DoT in claiming that a 200MHz wide swath of spectrum should remain completely unoccupied in order to protect GPS. The US needs an NTIA that works, not an NTIA that is to simply be ignored.

Moreover the idea that the FCC would rush something like this out on delegated authority (which is basically what was being implied by news reports last Friday that an order could come later that day) would repeat the mistakes of LightSquared’s January 2011 approval, which was also approved by the International Bureau on delegated authority, in a ruling which former (Republican) Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth noted “was an unprecedented and surprising development. That they would make this decision at the bureau level and not at the full commission level is just stunning”.

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