A plan by a satellite carrier to make better use of its spectrum could open up an extra channel for Wi-Fi in the U.S., though how and when consumers would get to use it isn't yet clear.
The proposal that satellite operator Globalstar submitted to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission this month could lead to a variety of different outcomes, even if the company gets everything it wants from the agency. But a central part of the plan is to allow Wi-Fi users access to a fourth channel in the most commonly used Wi-Fi band, which is available in some countries, such as Japan, but not yet in the U.S.
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The extra channel could mean better Wi-Fi performance, especially in locations where a lot of people are using Wi-Fi, such as large public venues and crowded urban hotspots.
Globalstar sells voice and data services over a network of satellites and has about 540,000 customers worldwide. But like other service providers that rely on space-based infrastructure, including LightSquared and Dish Network, Globalstar wants to be able to use its spectrum for faster mobile networks installed on Earth. One part of the company's plan is to use its spectrum for a 4G LTE network, just as the other satellite carriers are proposing. In the meantime, Globalstar wants approval to offer an extra channel on certain Wi-Fi LANs.
Using satellite spectrum for land-based, or terrestrial, networks is a controversial idea that has forced other applicants through multiple regulatory hoops. But in its bid for a so-called terrestrial mobile license, Globalstar has a valuable bargaining chip: The company owns a nationwide U.S. license for part of the spectrum that's defined internationally for use in Wi-Fi. Though residents of some other countries get four usable channels on the most commonly used Wi-Fi band, around 2400MHz, Globalstar's license on the top end of that band has prevented Wi-Fi's last channel, called Channel 14, from being offered on products sold in the U.S. Here, users get just three usable channels.
Globalstar's license covers 2483.5MHz to 2495MHz, which is only half of the spectrum that's required to use Channel 14. The other half, just below Globalstar's, qualifies for use under the Wi-Fi standard but is effectively stranded, said Barbee Ponder, Globalstar's general counsel and vice president. The only major use of that band in the U.S. is Bluetooth, which has a shorter range and lower speeds than Wi-Fi, he said.
One chipset for the world
However, most Wi-Fi chipsets are already equipped to use Channel 14, because it costs less to make one chipset for all parts of the world. The difference between the chips in U.S. products and the ones that can use four channels typically is just firmware, according to Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias.
To prevent interference between Wi-Fi and Globalstar's satellite service, which would continue operating in the band, the FCC would have to approve the radio emissions of all types of devices that could use the extra channel. "We think that most modern Wi-Fi-capable devices will be able to meet that emissions profile," Globalstar's Ponder said.
Once someone could use Channel 14, the effect would be easy to understand. "You would just see that you would have better Wi-Fi access," Ponder said. But that doesn't mean Channel 14 would be available the same way other Wi-Fi spectrum is.
Because Wi-Fi typically runs on unlicensed spectrum, anyone can make and sell network gear and client devices that use the technology in the U.S. as long as they get their products approved by the FCC. All that gear then has to coexist, sharing the spectrum and accepting interference from other radios.
Globalstar has several ideas for using Channel 14 and is open to more, but all would involve some degree of control. The company proposes to offer the extra channel in conjunction with what it calls a TLPS (terrestrial low-power service). Part of its plan for the TLPS is to set up about 20,000 special access points in hospitals and public and nonprofit schools.
The company hasn't yet decided what else the TLPS would include. Certain approved devices might be able to use TLPS access points whenever they are nearby, with no special effort by the user, Ponder said. Another possible model might be to charge a one-time activation fee for downloading the necessary firmware, according to Ponder.
The company could also offer the extra channel as an added feature for a specific manufacturer or service provider, or to partner with a carrier for an exclusive service at busy events and locations, according to Globalstar. For example, customers of a certain carrier might get exclusive access to Channel 14 at a football game or in an airport, Ponder said.
Globalstar hasn't spelled out its full strategy, but it says the plan has two phases. The TLPS proposal is the first part of its plan and the company expects to get approval for that next year. The second phase, in which it wants approval to use its spectrum for LTE, would unfold later. "It will probably take a little bit longer just because there are more interested parties that are going to be involved," Ponder said. The LTE network would also use another satellite band controlled by Globalstar, and the company would use a partner to build and operate it.
Three services at once
The company's 2400MHz frequencies might eventually host satellite, Wi-Fi and LTE services, with LTE and Wi-Fi offered in different areas depending on the need, Ponder said.
"Ultimately, the market would determine the highest and best use for that spectrum," Ponder said. "If there is an enormous number of people ... who fall in love with our TLPS and can't live without it, then of course I think that ... should ultimately dictate what the outcome is," he said.
An exclusive network with Channel 14 might be very attractive to mobile operators, said analyst Phil Marshall of Tolaga Research.
"It's more spectrum that can be used for mobile broadband and you will have greater control over it, as well as the advantage of it being at 2.4GHz," which is compatible with existing silicon, Marshall said.
However, despite that link to existing chips, orchestrating a change of this magnitude across enough Wi-Fi networks, phones and tablets might be a challenge, analysts said. Helping subscribers upgrade their current devices might be complicated and expensive for the service provider, and relying on users to buy new devices made with the feature would take time.
"It doesn't seem like a good idea to wait for an upgrade cycle in phones ... in order to build a huge base of subscribers," Farpoint's Mathias said. Meanwhile, many schools, stadiums and other venues already have Wi-Fi networks and may not want another one, because of management requirements and other issues, he said.
Those challenges exist amid an already competitive market for hotspots, with carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile and third parties such as Boingo offering thousands of networks in public places. "If you want access to a public Wi-Fi service, you've got a lot of them to choose from already," Mathias said.
The plan is likely to draw opposition from some existing mobile operators, even if it gives one of them a chance to offer an exclusive wireless LAN channel, Farpoint's Mathias said.
"When you have a service, nobody wants to see that service expanded by someone else," Mathias said. At the FCC, "this is not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination," he said.
Globalstar has high hopes for approval, especially for the TLPS part of its plan. Along with the 20,000 free hotspots, it plans to offer free access to its satellite-based services in federal disaster areas after natural or man-made disasters.
"Near term, there's just very little standing in the FCC's way to allowing us to provide the service," Ponder said.
However, the company is seeking a full FCC rulemaking including periods for public comment, and it's not expecting overnight success.
"We look at this as a multi-month process," Ponder said.