Ligado focuses on L-band rollout amid C-band extravaganza

Ligado Networks, which is once again in the spotlight following the FCC’s blowout C-band auction, is working this year to get its L-band spectrum ready to deploy despite continued backlash from the Department of Defense (DoD).  

Unlike the C-band, Ligado’s spectrum is free and clear, without any incumbents to move. The C-band is currently used by satellite operators that need to move to the upper portion of the band to make way for the 5G services that auction winners will deploy. The first batch of C-band spectrum will be available later this year, but much of it is in limbo until 2023.  

Ligado President and CEO Doug Smith told Fierce that he and his colleagues were not surprised to see the high demand in the $81 billion C-band auction given the need for mid-band spectrum. The C-band’s A-block licenses, which will be available at the end of this year, went for a premium, or at prices about 20% higher than other blocks.

But if the C-band spectrum fits into the “Goldilocks” spectrum sweet spot that is often used to describe it, the L-band is in an even sweeter spot, given it’s lower on the spectrum range and closer to the PCS and AWS bands that wireless operators already use.

With holdings in the 1.6 GHz band, Ligado's spectrum offers great capacity and coverage. It’s greenfield, which provides a lot of flexibility in terms of how to deploy it. “It’s just a great opportunity for us and our spectrum to play a critical role in accelerating the deployment of 5G networks across the country,” Smith said.

Speculation has run rampant for years that Ligado would sell its spectrum to the highest bidder, which may or may not turn out to be Verizon. But since the DoD continues to voice concerns about the impact Ligado’s network could have on federal GPS users, it’s increasingly unclear how much a wireless carrier wants to enter that fray.

Still, some analysts see bright signs for Ligado. New Street Research analysts, for example, have argued that the L-band is a valuable complement to a carrier’s C-band holdings because it improves the reach of C-band, accelerates the timing of deployment, lowers the cost of deployment and increases the capacity a carrier can extract from their expensive C-band licenses.

“We argued further that higher prices for C-band meant a higher value for the L-Band. The C-Band winners may not have much balance sheet capacity to buy the L-Band now; however, Ligado could easily enter into a lease for the L-Band that would have minimal impact on near-term cash flows and no impact on leverage,” wrote New Street analyst Jonathan Chaplin in a Wednesday report for investors.

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Analysts at LightShed Partners also believe Ligado’s spectrum can notably improve the performance of higher spectrum bands like C-band.

“We continue to receive consistent and new incremental feedback from engineers about how supplemental uplink would speed the buildout of C-Band spectrum and reduce the overall network density required to enable these higher C-Band frequencies,” wrote LightShed’s Walter Piecyk in a blog on Wednesday. “Investors should press Verizon on this very real issue at their upcoming investor day, given the $50 billion that it just spent in the C-Band auction and its prior questionable investments in mmWave spectrum and network equipment.”

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Smith didn’t get into specifics about what Ligado might be discussing with operators. The company is focused on seeing the L-band through the 3GPP standards process and creating an ecosystem for L-band products and services. It recently reached a pact with Rakuten Mobile to deploy the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) in a trial 5G private network.

Like a lot of folks in wireless these days, Ligado sees great opportunity in providing private networks to enterprises. A lot of enterprises are looking for a highly secure, low latency, customized network, according to Smith.

Ligado is working on those types of 5G solutions now. “We’re putting the building blocks together so that we can get to deployment of the networks,” which means working with chipset manufacturers and equipment providers, he said. “All that’s well underway.”

Separately, Ligado operates a satellite-based network that serves some 22 different federal agencies and the industrial sector that need the ubiquitous type of coverage that satellites offer. Satellites are not subject to the same elements that the terrestrial networks are exposed to, such as extreme weather events, Smith noted.

As for the L-band, the company expects to receive 3GPP approvals sometime later this year; the siting and permitting of equipment will come later.  

‘Free to go’

The FCC voted 5-0 last April to approve a modification for Ligado to move forward with its terrestrial plans in the L-band after it made a number of concessions. The FCC said its order included conditions to ensure that incumbents would not experience harmful interference. 

Just before leaving his post in January, former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai further endorsed Ligado’s plan by announcing the FCC would deny a request by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to delay the order.

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Smith said the FCC has spoken on the issue twice in the last year, and it’s been clear. That’s why Ligado is focused on moving ahead to get its spectrum ready for deployment. “The order fully protects GPS and allows us to move forward,” he said. “We’re free to go. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re moving ahead to deploy this now.”

Asked about what a deal with carriers might look like, whether a lease or otherwise, Smith said he’s open to ideas. “We’re absolutely open to partnerships with the established wireless carriers,” he said. “I don’t know what form that might take. I think there’s been expressed interest publicly from these companies to do private networks. We could work with them” and pursue that or other areas. “If there are opportunities to work with the wireless carriers, then absolutely, we’re open to do that.”

Opposition remains

For years, Ligado fought a lot of opposition to get its FCC approval. One of those opponents is satellite company Iridium, which uses a small sliver of spectrum that is separated from Ligado’s by a “paper thin” guard band, according to Robert McDowell, a lawyer who works for Iridium and a former FCC commissioner.  

Last fall, Ligado announced that it had raised about $4 billion in new capital to support the company’s technology plan and expand the roster of vendors supporting the L-band ecosystem. But McDowell said that and the high interest rate associated with it indicate Ligado doesn’t have enough money to build out a nationwide 5G network and looks to be biding its time, paying for its Reston, Virginia, headquarters, as well as attorneys and lobbyists.

That was before the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which became law on January 1, requires a study to look at the impact of Ligado under the FCC’s order, he noted. The NDAA calls on the Secretary of Defense to work with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to undertake an independent technical review of the FCC’s order, which is due in October.