Amazon’s wireless network trials are no mystery: It’s testing licensed Wi-Fi

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Bloomberg reported on mysterious network trials Amazon had conducted with satellite communications provider Globalstar. But the details of Amazon’s wireless tests are actually pretty plain: it’s investigating a form of Wi-Fi that uses dedicated licensed spectrum to connect to devices, rather than the open unlicensed bands used by our routers, laptops, tablets and smartphones today.

The technology is called terrestrial low-power service (TLPS), and satellite communications analyst and frequent GigaOM contributor Tim Farrar uncovered the details of the tests last month in his blog. Here’s the basic rundown.

  • Globalstar is trying to repurpose its satellite spectrum for terrestrial use, just like LightSquared and Dish Network have attempted with their own satellite airwaves. One of the technologies Globalstar is investigating is TLPS, and it has received an experimental license from the Federal Communications Commission to test it.
  • Globalstar is working with wireless research and investment group Jarvinian to trial TLPS in the real world. Jarvinian in turn brought in Wi-Fi access point maker Ruckus Wireless to build TLPS compatible equipment (they even put out a press release).
  • Jarvinian has said it is also working with a “major technology company” to test the benefits of TLPS for wide-scale consumer broadband use. Jarvinian has never named the company, but in its FCC filings it identifies three Silicon Valley locations, all of them addresses for Amazon’s research arm Lab126.

I suppose you could call all of this coincidence, but I highly doubt Amazon is letting Jarvinian, Ruckus and Globalstar into its secretive labs to conduct tests for the benefit of a rival.

amazon-kindle-fireSo what’s the deal with TLPS and why is Amazon interested? Amazon is evolving into a consumer device manufacturer selling its Kindle ebook readers and tablets all over the world. Those devices need connectivity, and so far Amazon has relied either on Wi-Fi or on arrangements with mobile carriers to provide its mobile broadband connections.

If it proves to be viable technology, TLPS could allow Amazon to provide more reliable and pervasive mobile broadband to customers for far cheaper. And if it chose to partner directly with Globalstar to build a TLPS network, it would gain much greater control of its customer’s broadband experience.

TLPS would work over the Wi-Fi gear that’s already in the market today, meaning Amazon wouldn’t have to build expensive cellular radios into its Kindles. The main difference would be that the Kindle would connect to a private Wi-Fi network that uses its own boutique spectrum band. It wouldn’t have to worry about interference from other Wi-Fi access points or devices.

That means a TLPS network could be planned, with access points transmitting at much greater power and at much further distances than standard Wi-Fi routers since they wouldn’t have to worry about a hodgepodge of other nearby transmitters competing to use the same airwaves. In short, Amazon might be able to get a 4G-style network at Wi-Fi costs – at least in dense urban areas where this rollout  makes the most sense.

“Globalstar believes that because of the availability of an existing WiFi device ecosystem, its spectrum should be more highly valued than alternative small cell spectrum, such as that owned by Clearwire,” Farrar wrote in a separate blog post.

But don’t get too excited just yet, Farrar warned. As with all of the satellite bands, there are still some questions on whether the introduction of a terrestrial network would interfere with the adjacent incumbents in the 2.4 GHz band. The FCC has granted Globalstar a two-year experimental license giving the company time to see if TLPS rollout would interfere with radio and TV broadcaster auxiliary service bands.

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