The New Center Podcast: Interview With Ligado CEO Doug Smith

The New Center · America’s 5G Moment of Truth: Interview with Doug Smith

5G’s time has finally arrived, as it is becoming one of the most valuable tools in promoting American innovation and competitiveness in emerging technology. However, despite the growing importance of high-speed connectivity, the United States—which paced the world in developing so many other transformative technologies—is falling behind in the race to 5G. The New Center policy analyst Olive Morris checks in with Doug Smith, the CEO of Ligado Networks, to explore the potential benefits of and barriers to efficient 5G rollout in America.

Interview Transcript:

*This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Olive Morris [00:03]: Hi there. Welcome to a new episode of The New Center podcast. Today, we’re discussing the potential benefits and applications of 5G-enabled services and the challenges facing 5G rollout in America. I’m Olive Morris, a policy analyst at The New Center. A few weeks ago, I spoke with Doug Smith, the CEO of Ligado, an American mobile communications company developing next-generation solutions to support the emerging 5G market. Doug is a real expert in this space—he’s been involved with the development of nationwide cellular networks, spanning every generation of technology, from the first analog networks to the 5G networks that everyone is talking abut now. Here’s our interview on the importance of efficient 5G rollout in America. 

OM [00:47]: Thanks for joining us today.

Doug Smith [00:53]: Absolutely. Let me just start by saying it is great to be with you today. It’s wonderful to talk with places like The New Center that are focused on solving the big problems that we face. We consider ourselves problem solvers at Ligado, too, and it’s never been more necessary than over the past year, the year that upended how we work and live. Like every business, we’ve had to adjust how we work, where we work, and when we work. Many of us have young kids at home and their schedules have been changing and we’ve had to adapt to all that. 

On the work front, I’m particularly proud of our satellite team. Throughout the entirety of this past year, we have a satellite team that runs our operation center—really critical, important services—and they’ve been there every minute of every day to make sure that we’re providing the connectivity that our mobile satellite customers rely on day in and day out, and certainly have over the course of this last year during the pandemic. There’s really just no question that this past year underscored the necessity of connectivity. 

Let me just take a step back and talk to you about who we are. Ligado is a mobile communications company. We operate our mobile satellite network across all of North America, and we provide services to both government and commercial customers. We’ve served the FBI and FEMA, for example, for more than 20 years with extremely reliable and critical communication services. You know, one of the evidences we see of how important they are is that we consistently see a significant increase in our satellite usage during times of natural disaster, like the recent outages outages that we’ve experienced in Texas.

Every disaster before that, we always see that folks rely on our communications services during critical times when other communication options aren’t there. That really does speak to the reliability of the services that we provide. But looking forward right now, we are developing new terrestrial solutions for 5G public and private networks and enhancing the next generation of our mobile satellite service. Across the country, critical industries like manufacturing, energy, health care, and transportation are all trying to find ways to modernize their systems, create new efficiencies, and bolster their security and their operations. As they leverage automation and other digitized solutions, connectivity becomes a critical component here. The more machines you have talking to one another, the more important is to make sure that they are reliably and securely linked.

And that’s where we come in. We have nationwide terrestrial spectrum and in the lower-midband, and we have mobile satellite coverage across North America that can serve the unique requirements in these critical infrastructure companies. They cannot fully be served with a ‘one size fits all’ network. That’s why we are developing a 5G mobile private network solution that will give businesses customers the scale of a public network, but the security and the customization of a private one. 

We’re already in the midst of an extremely busy year advancing these solutions. We recently announced a collaboration with an innovative technology company partner to us, Rakuten Mobile, which will result in network trials later this year.  We’re also developing the ecosystem for the L-band, which is a slice of spectrum that our networks use and which is critical to accelerating 5G deployment across the U.S. That includes working our way through the spectrum standardization process, the 3GPP, and working closely with leading wireless industry vendors to ensure devices, chip sets, and network equipment are all ready to connect on airways. So on that front, stay tuned for more progress and announcements coming soon.

OM [04:53]: 5G is something that a lot of people have heard about, but maybe don’t know very much about. Can you describe some of the promising future capabilities of 5G?

DS [05:04]: Sure. There’s no question that 5G technologies will drive unprecedented innovation. If we get it right, the U.S. will benefit both from an economic and a national security perspective and lead the world. Let me back up for a minute and talk about prior technological transitions we’ve gone through, and you’re right. We do hear a lot about 5G, you know, but the actual adoption and implementation of 5G is still very much in the early stages. We haven’t even begun to see the extent of what is possible. The transition from 4G to 5G is not like any other wireless technology transition that we’ve been through before. 

5G is much more than just faster speeds and your smartphone and your tablet. It’s really about building next generation mobile networks that will help modernize hospitals, power grids, factories, farms, and all these large complex operations. It’s about modernizing how they operate. And it’s really about accelerating the industry toward transformation. We’re seeing the demand grow each day across all sectors. As an example, according to the CTIA, 5G technology will ensure self-driving cars reduce emissions by up to 90%, cut travel time by 40%, and save lives. That’s really powerful, right? And that is what is possible with increased automation that can come from the deployment of 5G services. Business leaders understand that highly secure, ultra-low latency machine-to-machine communications and enterprise applications are necessary to compete and be successful. They know what their future must look like. It’s a place that we can help them make it a reality. So where Ligado comes in is with our network and our spectrum being deployed for 5G private networks. It’s really an ideal combination. 

Our lower-midband spectrum, with the technology that exists with 5G, we can make this automation and the modernization happen, and it will be a game changer for U.S. businesses. So building out 5G capabilities across the U.S. in a customized fashion—and ‘customized’ is really the key there—will allow these entities to deploy new automation tools and to better serve citizens and to do so more reliably. It will also allow them to better compete in a global market and ensure their operations are better protected against outside threats, like the threats we see from China in the technology space.

OM [07:49]: What do you think are the most impactful changes that 5G will have on the American economy over the next decade?

DS [07:57]: So at the highest level, 5G has a potential to bring enormous economic benefits to the U.S. A recent study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group estimates [5G] will add nearly $2 trillion to the U.S. GDP and create over 4 million jobs over the next 10 years. This year has shown us how connectivity is a must for everyone—for work, for school, and to connect with those we love. We’ve watched in real-time as Americans have adjusted how they live and work, and connectivity has been central to most of it. But we haven’t scratched the surface of what it will mean. We see a huge opportunity for advancement, both from a technological and a business perspective, particularly for critical American industries. 

Mobile private networks are a 5G solution providing the scale of a public network with the control and security of a private one in a cost-efficient model. Private networks aren’t new, but the rise of automation technology and the Internet of Things, and really connecting machines with other machines, have made them much more important to modern business operations, especially for critical infrastructure entities with large footprints and complex operations, like factories, farms, and public utilities. The ability to build out mobile private networks that have a huge impact, not only in the American economy, but also on improving business operations for America’s most critical industries and delivering solutions to serve the greater public interest.

OM [09:26]: The FCC recently greenlit a long pending licensed petition from Ligado to use it’s midband spectrum for 5G-related enterprises. Why is midband spectrum so critical to 5G rollout in America?

DS [09:39]: This is a really important question. As we think about the rollout of 5G, the spectrum needs are very different than what was required for 4G or the generation of technology before that. So as we think about this, it’s a good time to start with the questions, which are: what are we trying to do and how can we do it?

I think we can all agree that our collective goal as a country is to ensure that everyone has a secure, reliable connection. We get it to them as quickly as possible. The first step is spectrum. We’re asking a lot of 5G, so it requires a right mix of spectrum. Different frequencies provide different benefits—things like super fast data speeds, high density, traffic applications, ultra reliability, and low latency communications. These unique capabilities require a combination of different spectrum assets to leverage each band’s core deployment strength.

Ligado’s spectrum sits in the lower-midband. So I would define that as one to two gigahertz. This is the ideal spectrum on occasion to have both balance of coverage and capacity. For example, a spectrum located in this range covers five times the geographic area compared to spectrum further up the band and the higher-midband (in the range of say two gigahertz up to six gigahertz, such as CBRS, which was auction last year and C band, which was just recently concluded.) Midband spectrum, specifically the L band where Ligado spectrum sits, has a critical role on accelerating 5G deployments in the U.S. by helping to get deployments in the field sooner. You can invest in existing infrastructure and reduce the need to build tens of thousands of new cell towers across the country, which all takes time. And so the result is really a faster deployment, a lower cost, and a higher reliability for the end-users, and it can also help address current 5G rollout gaps in rural areas.

OM [11:47]: Ligado recently announced it’s teaming up with Rakuten Mobile to create a blueprint for 5G Mobile Private Networks. Can you talk a little more about that? 

DS[11:56]: Absolutely. Going back to what I talked a little bit about at the onset, which is, we see a really great opportunity in the private network space. We know more and more companies are leveraging the Internet of Things and automating their operations and critical infrastructure. This makes connectivity all the more crucial to their day to day. And because many of these companies provide critical services to American citizens and customers, they have a real need for secure private networks that can ensure they stay up and running. 

As we build out these solutions, we’ve teamed up with Rakuten Mobile, which is doing extremely innovative things in the wireless space. In particular, they are global leaders in something called O-RAN technology and network automation, which helps networks be more flexible and save on costs, which are two pretty important components when you’re deploying customized networks. We’re going to work in concert with them, leveraging our dedicated, advanced spectrum in their O-RAN solution in cloud-native network platform to execute network trials for 5G Mobile Private Networks this year. We think our skillsets are the perfect combination for a market that’s likely to grow rapidly.

OM [13:10]: There’s a lot of hope that Open Radio Access Networks can unlock the potential of 5G. Can you talk a bit about how these networks work and how they can be made secure, given that cybersecurity is such a pressing concern in this space? 

DS [13:26]: An O-RAN network architecture uses open interfaces and standards, which means lower network costs and more flexibility in terms of ecosystem component versatility. The cost savings are huge and have been proven both by the upstart vendors who promote it as well as Rakuten Mobile, the major wireless operator that is actually using it today. The flexible and virtual network architecture that O-RAN technology provides is crucial for building 5G Mobile Private Networks, but there’s a broader value to O-RAN as well. 

It’s really crucial to the United States long-term competitive response to China because it provides trusted infrastructure vendors with an innovation path and strategy to compete with China. Strengthening the supply chain in this way is a win-win. It naturally means more innovation, it increases security, and it combats the dominance of untrusted vendors in China. So we really are proud to be leveraging it as a core component of our solution.

OM [14:30]: There’s a lot of reporting on bureaucratic infighting during the Trump administration, among federal agencies that manage a lot of the spectrum that will be needed for 5G services. However, the FCC’s approval of Ligado was ultimately a unanimous, bipartisan 5-0 decision. Can you talk about the importance of having a unified bipartisan us strategy for 5G throughout government?

DS [14:53]: So of course, you’re right, that our FCC decision was bipartisan and unanimous. It’s important to think about why, and it’s because the FCC follows the science. They base their decision on results of years of rigorous technical analysis, but at a higher level, we absolutely believe that an American economy firing on all cylinders requires a unified approach on spectrum. And here’s what I mean by a unified approach. We have to stop acting like spectrum decisions are an either/or, where someone has to lose for someone else to win. In spectrum proceeding after spectrum proceeding, we’ve seen policymakers work hard to find new ways to use scarce spectrum resources only to get attacked. These disagreements delay progress and unfortunately, the process doesn’t seem to support finding solutions that advance all sides. We have to work together to find practical, technical win-win solutions. And we were smart enough to do that, and we should be committed enough.

We’re on the cusp of deploying 5G networks that promise significant economic and industrial transformation, as well as the international leadership that comes with successful 5G deployment. So the stakes are high, but the upside is much higher. And the key is a cohesive direction from Washington. We’re not going to be a global leader if perspective strategy is driven by political infighting or subject to the whims of special interest. The bottom line is we have to work together towards shared goals. 

I can tell you that for us, it wasn’t easy, and there still remains a lot of work to do with federal agencies, including the Department of Defense. That’s a primary focus of ours for the year ahead in Washington, we are ready to work in good faith for a holistic solution, but as we go forward, what we can’t have is for every time the government looks to free up spectrum for 5G, stakeholders come in and try and slow it down. Self-interested protectionism doesn’t help here. If we’re going to win at 5G, we have to find a way to work together, to find solutions that enable us all to move forward.

OM [17:03]: There’s been a lot of media attention towards China’s growing 5G capabilities and its expansive commercial network. What are the implications of China winning the so-called “race to 5G”?

DS [17:16]: The implications are so significant that for us, failure is not an option. We need to lead in the development and deployment of 5G solutions, just like we did in 4G, working together with each other and our allies, because it’s a major pillar of rebooting U.S. infrastructure, boosting our global competitiveness, and protecting our national security. We can strengthen U.S. national security by arming our critical industries with the ultra-secure, reliable networks that improve and strengthen business operations, especially for absolutely critical entities like power grids. It requires a unified front and commitment to problem solving among industry and policymakers.

OM [17:57]: So obviously the U.S. government is juggling a lot right now with the COVID-19 pandemic, but once the world returns to a sense of normalcy, how can the Biden administration best promote America’s 5G network?

DS [18:10]: I think it goes back to this question of a unified approach. We need policies that support swift, ubiquitous, and cost-effective deployment of 5G. The Executive Order on America’s Supply Chain was an important and necessary step. Making sure that we have a diverse, secure, and resilient supply chain is critically important for technology development, adoption, and rollout. What’s at stake is our ability to compete on a global scale and defend our nation from threats of all kinds, especially China. I think it’s absolutely crucial that our spectrum policy follows science and data. We need to adhere to technological fact and prioritize what’s best for the country as a whole. The good news is that I think a lot of Washington is starting to recognize this. There’s so much interest in modernizing our country’s infrastructure, it’s clear that this isn’t something we can put off any longer. And our wireless networks are obviously a crucial component of infrastructure.