Qualcomm, Gogo disagree on how spectrum auction should play out

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As they continue to separately petition the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt rules authorizing air-ground mobile broadband service on a secondary license basis in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band, Gogo and Qualcomm are not exactly finding each other on the same page.

The 14.0-14.5 GHz band is within the Ku band primarily used for satellite communications.  Gogo and Qualcomm want to see the spectrum used for US terrestrial-based, next generation inflight connectivity service, which could support connection speeds of 100 mbps.

Gogo wants the FCC to split the band into four 125 MHz-wide spectrum licenses, arguing that there are enough interested parties to support a four-license auction. If the FCC isn’t amenable to auctioning four licenses, Gogo believes the commission should auction a minimum three licenses – one 250 MHz and two 125 MHz licenses.

On the flip side, Qualcomm believes a four-license divide would create a bandwidth limitation such that the owner of a single 125 MHz license would not be able to provide full broadband connectivity to passengers. It has proposed that the FCC create two 250 MHz blocks.

Countering Qualcomm’s proposal, Gogo suggests that if only two 250 MHz licenses are offered “it will send a signal to smaller entities that they need not bother applying” to participate in the auction, which it believes could draw interest from multiple parties.

Gogo has good reason to be concerned about a two 250 MHz-license auction. Should the FCC take this approach, there is a strong possibility that corporations with far deeper pockets than Gogo (AT&T and Qualcomm just for starters) could pony up, and ultimately squash the company’s dominant position in the US (certainly trumping anything it can offer with its 4 MHz of spectrum in the 800 MHz band currently dedicated to ATG).

The FCC has not yet decided if it will auction this spectrum to support a next generation inflight connectivity service, though it does seem to be leaning towards an auction. Both Gogo and Qualcomm face opposition to their proposals. The Satellite Industry Association (SIA) – which represents Boeing, DirecTV (being acquired by AT&T), Inmarsat, ViaSat, Panasonic Avionics and many others – in May informed the commission that it “continues to have serious concerns” regarding potential interference with Ku satellites.

SIA had been quiet on this issue for several months, and a filing in December 2013 to the FCC wasn’t hard-hitting, leading some stakeholders – including Gogo – to believe that the association had softened its stance. But SIA clarified its position in May. And it’s anything but soft.

“As SIA has previously discussed, fundamental questions remain whether such a service could successfully co-exist with existing and future satellite networks,” says SIA. But what’s perhaps most interesting about SIA’s rebuttal is that the association is now suggesting that a new air-ground mobile broadband secondary service isn’t really necessary in light of AT&T’s decision to launch a 4G LTE broadband air-ground system in the United States.

“In particular, AT&T has recently announced plans to build a new 4G LTE broadband air-ground system using spectrum already licensed to AT&T. AT&T has not publicly disclosed whether it will spatially re-use spectrum already being used for terrestrial 4G service or employ unused spectrum that AT&T has previously acquired. It is clear, though, that the demand for broadband inflight connectivity market can and will be met using primary spectrum allocations, without the need to craft a complicated sharing regime between technically diverse secondary and primary services,” says SIA.

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