The fight over a new Wi-Fi channel is coming to a head

Globalstar says it can open up another Wi-Fi channel to relieve congestion -- but with some conditions

Market Street Wi-Fi

San Francisco activated outdoor Wi-Fi access points for a free network along Market Street on Dec. 16, 2013.

Credit: Stephen Lawson

Globalstar's plan to open a new Wi-Fi channel under its control is nearing the moment of truth after years of regulatory wrangling.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is considering Globalstar's plan, and a vote could come at any time. News reports suggest it might be close.

If Globalstar gets its way, Wi-Fi users in the U.S. will have one more channel, which could reduce congestion and improve performance. But both their mobile devices and the hotspots they use would need firmware upgrades to take advantage of the new frequency, and the channel wouldn't necessarily be open to everyone.

Globalstar's plan is to make a fourth channel available in the unlicensed, often crowded 2.4GHz band used for Wi-Fi in the U.S. While users in some other countries have been enjoying this channel for years, part of it has been set aside in the U.S. as a guard band to protect Globalstar's satellite frequencies.

The company wants to use that guard band for a Wi-Fi-based service instead. Most Wi-Fi devices in the U.S. could be modified to tap into the extra channel.

Although that sounds like a generous move, it would come with a catch. Unlike all other Wi-Fi channels, which are open to any FCC-approved device and don't require pemission, this one would be under Globalstar's control.

What that would mean isn't clear yet. The company plans to use the channel for what it calls a TLPS (Terrestrial Low-Power Service) network. But buyers of Wi-Fi devices and routers would need to get upgrades to use this special band. And a carrier that makes a deal with Globalstar might be able to set that channel aside for its own subscribers.

The plan has come under sharp criticism during the lengthy approval process at the FCC.

Microsoft, Google, the cable industry, and backers of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth all have filed comments urging the agency not to approve the TLPS scheme. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group says tests at the FCC have shown TLPS would interfere with Bluetooth, which already uses part of the channel. The group also says it would be dangerous to give one company a different set of rules for unlicensed spectrum while thousands more follow the standard regulations.

"You don't want to privatize Wi-Fi," said analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. Any change in the ground rules would open up a Pandora's box, potentially confusing consumers and causing other big Wi-Fi operators, like cable companies, to demand their own channel, he said.

Globalstar declined to comment on the FCC proceedings. It has said the TLPS network would not disrupt other uses of the spectrum.

If this fight sounds familiar, it's because another company, LightSquared, proposed its own plan a few years ago to use satellite spectrum for a land-based network. It, too, faced criticism over interference, in that case with GPS. The FCC shot down LightSquared's plan.

Why do satellite companies keep trying to use their frequencies for other things? Because the FCC set aside those bands for satellite services years ago when no one knew cellular would end up covering so much of the country. “You didn't expect mllions of base stations to be deployed,” Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall said.

Now that more than 90 percent of the U.S. population is covered by cell networks, the satellite market is limited to the military, certain industries, and a few hard-core users.

But Globalstar may end up succeeding where LightSquared failed. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler supports the company's plan, giving it a big political boost. The appetite for more Wi-Fi spectrum, even through a new and complicated scheme, is one of the strongest forces in wireless these days.

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