Ligado and OneWeb blur the lines between satellite and terrestrial in 5G

There may be battles between satellite and mobile industries for some of the spectrum which MNOs want for 5G, but there will also be far greater participation by satellite players in 5G, than there was in previous mobile generations. The latest moves by Ligado (formerly LightSquared), Dish Network and OneWeb all point to a world where the walls between satellite and terrestrial will become far more blurred, and the technologies and operators will work together to deliver ubiquitous wireless broadband.

Dish and Ligado both have FCC waivers to enable them to deploy terrestrial-only mobile networks in bands that were previously reserved for mobile satellite. While Dish is deploying NB-IoT, as a holding pattern before it makes its 5G decisions, Ligado has had a far rockier ride. Under its former name, it became embroiled in a bitter fight with the GPS community over possible interference from its proposed 4G services, and ended up in bankruptcy protection.

It has since emerged, and come to some agreements with the GPS players. Now it is reported to be working with two investment banks, Goldman Sachs Group and PJT Partners, to work out its strategic options in advance of building out a 5G network. Those options may include a new equity investment through a private placement or other routes, according to Reuters sources.

Financial advisers estimated Ligado’s spectrum was worth between $4.5bn and $6.8bn during the company’s bankruptcy, and with the focus on densification and higher frequency bands in the US ahead of 5G, that figure may have increased.

Since announcing its new incarnation, Ligado has said it will focus mainly on a wholesale or neutral host network to support many services and providers in the Industrial IoT. This will be a “first-of-its-kind advanced satellite/terrestrial network to serve the emerging industrial IoT space,” a spokesperson told FierceWireless. “An important component of executing this plan will be identifying strategic partners that are willing to invest private capital to accelerate the delivery of this network for the American public.”

An IIoT focus would enable Ligado to avoid a head-on contest with the big MNOs in their heartland of consumer services. Instead, it can concentrate on an emerging area with  new revenues, and potentially higher margins, and by sticking to wholesale (as the original LightSquared aimed to do with LTE), it can be an enabler for the major carriers as well as for new players from the webscale or private networks arenas.

Although most of the GPS concerns have been addressed, Ligado is still waiting for final FCC approval for its build-outs. Last May, it requested that a 10 MHz block of spectrum near GPS frequencies should be reserved for satellite use only, to allay fears that terrestrial signals would interfer with GPS services. It is now lobbying for a “single national auction” for spectrum adjacent to its upper band.

Meanwhile, OneWeb Satellites – a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus – has broken ground on a new $85m satellite manufacturing facility in Exploration Park, Florida, to support its ambition of launching a fleet of hundreds of satellites to connect underserved populations round the world, and to backhaul small cells in more developed markets.

Building a new factory will enable the company to design its products and processes specifically for the OneWeb vision, though it will also sell satellites to other customers from next year. However, its first mission is to build 900 communications satellites for OneWeb’s low earth orbit (LEO) constellation.

OneWeb recently merged with Intelsat in a complicated deal which brought major investment from Softbank of Japan. It will target telcos, governments and satellite providers but sees 5G as its biggest opportunity. “We designed our system so our usage of the new Ka band is totally compatible with the mobile industry’s needs,” founder Greg Wyler said. “We’re not a satellite company. We are a communications company,” which happens to have satellites.

Wyler says the OneWeb system has been designed and tested to operate seamlessly between the core network and cellular base station. “The core network doesn’t know it’s going over OneWeb, a microwave on the ground, fiber on the ground – We’re just a microwave repeater that happens to be a little bit higher in elevation,” said Wyler.