Globalstar's TLPS: A Strange Battle For Spectrum

Satellite communications provider wants the FCC to authorize its exclusive use of a bit of frequency to create a new WiFi service. The WiFi industry is not pleased.

Lee Badman

December 30, 2014

4 Min Read
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When it comes to wireless technologies, frequencies tend to make the most headlines. Whether we're talking about mobile carriers, satellite communications, or WiFi providers, more spectrum equals more robust offerings and market leverage. The fight for spectrum isn’t always fair. It can also be downright weird, as illustrated by current goings on with TLPS.

TLPS stands for terrestrial low power service, and it's currently a twinkle in the eye of satellite communications provider Globalstar. The Globalstar TPLS story is an odd and nuanced one, so let me start with the short version.

Globalstar wants to leverage a bit of frequency it licensed for satellite use for a new land-based WiFi service that it feels will be nothing less than transformative to the WiFi landscape. However, many leaders in the wireless industry don't agree with Globalstar's claims of TLPS benefits, and are crying foul.

Opportunities to reshape the current WiFi paradigm don't come along often, and it's unusual to see a single vendor potentially having access to spectrum that nobody else can have in what's typically an unlicensed paradigm. To boot, there is speculation that TLPS can actually harm what little existing spectrum there is for WiFi.

The decision on whether Globalstar will get its way rests with a hyper-political Federal Communications Commission. And customers will benefit hugely or negligibly, depending on what rhetoric or technical claims you buy into. Now, I'll flesh out the story.

In the contemporary WiFi realm, it's widely accepted that the 2.4 GHz band (where wireless standards including 802.11b, g, and part of n live) is pretty much exhausted. The ever-important "non-overlapping channels" of 1, 6, and 11 are frequently saturated by competing WiFi devices and interfering devices of all types in this unlicensed frequency range.

Given the sorry state of 2.4 GHz, the WiFi industry sees 5 GHz as the great hope for high-density WLAN for the foreseeable future. With more channels available and less noise present from non-WiFi gadgetry, 5 GHz also works well when planning for capacity instead of range, which is pretty much a standard WiFi practice. This all adds up to fast 802.11ac adoption by access point makers as well as client device chip providers. 2.4 GHz isn't dead, but it's on life support as 5 GHz takes over as the preferred spectrum for enterprise WiFi.

Back to TLPS. Globalstar's proposed service lives at the high end of the 2.4 GHz spectrum, in what would be WiFi channel 14. The company wants exclusive use of this space, and asked the FCC for permission to build a single-channel empire based on holding a license for satellite use of the frequency -- as opposed to the FCC opening up this spectrum for everyone to get a little more breathing room in 2.4 GHz.

Globalstar is going all out to promote TLPS, touting its ability to provide a WiFi "superhighway" in a band that WLAN professionals are trying to avoid, while also trashing 5 GHz as a poor WiFi choice based on dated thinking. The company is lining up "experts" who back its claims, but I have yet to see anyone in the WLAN industry agree with Globalstar.

In fact, the WiFi Alliance and independent voices (including mine) have voiced serious concern with aspects of Globalstar's claims and its proposed business model. For example, WiFi experts argue that channel 14 is too close to channel 11, and the rest of the market will suffer interference to the band's top end.

It's obvious that big dollars are at stake here, as the debate has gotten pretty nasty at times. For instance, WLAN pioneer and expert Devin Akin argues that the core idea behind TLPS is "technically unsound and makes little sense" in a white paper entitled, "Globalstar TLPS: You're Kidding, Right?"  Meanwhile, Globalstar released a press statement in response to an investment firm's criticism of TLPS.

As a small businessman and wireless professional, I understand Globalstar's ambition but can't agree with their vision. In a perfect world, the FCC would figure out a way for the entire market to minimally benefit from WiFi channel 14 by making it a contiguous extension of current 2.4 GHz space, but that's not likely to happen. If Globalstar gets its way (the FCC has been known to do really wonky things in similar cases),
TLPS will likely target niche markets such as home ISPs or something like Amazon's Whispernet, where a single-channel offering has a fighting chance of working.

Licensed add-ons won't fly for existing WLAN environments, and Globalstar's promises of giving TPLS to schools and libraries fall flat as too many channel 14 APs are as bad as too much of any other single channel. 

This story likely will only become more interesting as the regulatory process plays out.

About the Author(s)

Lee Badman

Wireless Network Architect

Lee is a Certified Wireless Network Expert (CWNE #200) and Wireless Network Architect for a large private university. He has also taught classes on networking, wireless network administration, and wireless security. Lee's technical background includes 10 years in the US Air Force as an Electronic Warfare systems journeyman technician and Master Technical Training Instructor, and a stint in telecommunications in the private sector. Lee is an active Extra Class amateur radio operator (KI2K), and has a wide range of technical hobbies. He has helped organize and has presented at several higher education and industry conferences, and has done extensive freelance writing work for a number of IT, low voltage, and communications periodicals. Follow him on Twitter at @wirednot, and read his personal blog at wirednot.wordpress.com.

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