The FCC recently released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) that will allow mobile satellite service provider Globalstar to convert a portion of its licensed satellite spectrum to terrestrial wireless broadband use. Importantly, the band to be converted lies immediately above the unlicensed 2.4 GHz ISM band currently used for WiFi (802.11b, g, and some n), Bluetooth, microwave ovens, and a myriad other everyday devices.
Coincidentally, investor Philip Falcone's LightSquared also sought this type of conversion, and the FCC's denial, based on potential interference with GPS receivers, led to that company filing for bankruptcy.
Globalstar's plans are still in the formative stages, and the company is working with venture fund Jarvinian to develop a business plan. In an investor presentation hosted by the two companies, they talked about developing an interference-free, carrier-grade WiFi network using a combination of their licensed spectrum and the top end of the unlicensed ISM spectrum.
John Dooley, Managing Director for Jarvinian, described the chaos that surrounds current unplanned WiFi deployments, which results in unpredictable interference. Having an exclusive license for a portion of the spectrum, he argued, would allow the companies to offer a new and more dependable version of WiFi.
The trouble is that Globalstar only has exclusive access to about half the spectrum they hope to use. The specific band the FCC addressed in the NPRM is between 2.473 and 2.495 GHz. The lower half of that (from 2.473 to 2.4835 GHz) is the upper end of the unlicensed ISM band. Globalstar owns the 11.5 MHz immediately above that, from 2.4835 to 2.495 GHz. So rolling those two bands together will give them a 22 MHz channel, essentially providing the ability to deliver one usable 20-MHz 802.11b, g, or n network. The company's own diagrams show considerable interference up to about 2.48 GHz, so it remains to be seen how well the network will perform.
Dooley also described a "centrally managed" WiFi network that sounded similar to a wireless LAN switching system using a central controller to adjust the power level on all access points to minimize interference. However, that control could only be exerted on the company's own access points and would still be challenged by other transmissions in the unlicensed portion of their channel.
Globalstar intends to make existing WiFi devices compatible with its network via a firmware upgrade, which would be a strong selling point. WiFi chipmakers typically build devices for the world market, and can support a frequency range higher than the 2.4835-GHz limit imposed by the FCC. The ISM band in Europe and Japan extends further up the spectrum. If Globalstar's assertion that existing WiFi devices can be made compatible with its service through a firmware upgrade proves to be true, the ability to serve the millions of WiFi devices now in existence would offer a huge advantage over having to develop a device ecosystem from scratch.
Given the ever-increasing demand for wireless broadband services, a service of this type would be a welcome addition -- if it works as described. Because Globalstar owns the spectrum needed to make the whole thing work, it will clearly be looking to monetize it. That could come in the form of a service offered directly to consumers, or it might be sold to carriers, which in turn use it as a more reliable option in their WiFi offloading strategies.
We're always excited by the prospect of a new and better high-speed wireless service. However, lots of folks have gone broke trying to deliver on that dream.