December 15, 2016Valerie Green

Q&A: Ligado Teams Up With George Mason University

On Thursday, December 15th, Ligado and George Mason University announced a pilot program to develop and deploy a cloud-based network that will allow students and scientists to access the federal government’s weather data. Valerie Green, Ligado’s Chief Legal Officer, and Geoff Stearn, Ligado’s Vice President for Spectrum Development, sat down to discuss what the partnership means for the future of meteorology and the next-generation 5G high-speed network.

As part of this partnership, Ligado will be providing GMU with access to data via a cloud network.  This information was previously only available to those who had their own satellite receiver.  Why is this important?

Geoff: This is a real game-changer for meteorology departments like GMU’s.  The data we’re talking about is detailed satellite imagery gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Their satellites gather the raw data that researchers, meteorologists and private companies use to make weather reports and track climate conditions.  Every time you check a weather app on your phone, the forecast you see comes from NOAA’s data. 

This data is fantastic – and taxpayers have spent billions of dollars on it.  But despite the fact that this data is funded by taxpayers and is technically free for anyone to download, right now you can only access it if you have your own satellite receiver.  That’s a prohibitive expense for most individuals and even some public universities with meteorology programs like GMU. 

Ligado realized there’s a better way to do this.  We launched a pilot program that makes this data available in real-time via the cloud, which means that anyone with an internet connection can access it – no satellite receiver required.

Valerie: It’s also important to understand that delivering this data via satellite takes up a chunk of spectrum.  Spectrum is a finite resource, and it’s extremely valuable.  The 4G network your phone runs on – that takes up spectrum.  And as Ligado and many other companies begin to build out the next-generation 5G network, it’s going to be critically important that we make the best use of the spectrum we have.

The great thing about providing this weather data on a cloud-based network is that it could make that spectrum available for more uses.  This concept is called “spectrum sharing.”

If we can make weather data available to more students and scientists – while also opening up more spectrum – it’s a real win-win. 

What made GMU an attractive partner for this pilot program?

Geoff: We know GMU really well, in fact we have a lot of GMU graduates on our team at Ligado – so we know firsthand what an outstanding academic institution it is.  When we started discussing our idea for the cloud-based delivery network with them, it immediately clicked.  They had been interested in accessing NOAA’s weather data, but it was cost-prohibitive for them.  So they were naturally intrigued by the idea of accessing this critical information without the high cost, and they were also intrigued by working with us to build new tools to actually analyze the data.

You raise an important point.  The data coming in from NOAA is in raw form.  How can GMU and other users crunch that raw data and make it useful for research?

Valerie: The data coming in from NOAA is primarily satellite imagery, and it’s constantly changing.  So there are two important things you need.  First, you need to have a network that is reliable and supplies you that data in real-time.  Second, you need to be able to store the data so that you can analyze changing patterns.

But as Geoff mentioned, this isn’t just about accessing that imagery – it’s also about building software tools that allow you to customize it for your own particular needs and interests.  It’ll be a great tool for students, but let’s also remember that GMU’s faculty conducts a lot of its own research, and this will help them build and validate new models that will improve weather forecasting for the long term.  That has enormous public benefits.

When most people think of meteorology, what comes to mind is the weather report they get on the morning news or from an app on their phone.  But isn’t good weather data about a lot more than figuring out if you’ll need to take an umbrella to work?

 Geoff: Oh, absolutely.  Now, one benefit to getting this data in more hands is that it will lead to more accurate forecasts – so hopefully you won’t get caught in the rain or wearing the wrong coat quite as often.  But a big part of meteorology also has to do with critical, life-and-death conditions like hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.  If forecasters can predict a hurricane’s landfall more quickly and more accurately, people can be evacuated faster.  Likewise, if we have more smart people analyzing the speed and direction of wildfires in real-time, we can direct firefighting efforts and save more homes and lives.

Valerie: And this pilot could lead to making NOAA’s weather data available much more broadly, to anyone with an interest in weather and an internet connection.  A 12-year- old who is fascinated by weather could conduct his or her own research.  A high school science teacher could build a new curriculum to track changing weather patterns.  And one thing we know about innovation in America is that if you build it, they will come.  Provide the tools, and curious, brilliant people will make incredible things happen.

Valerie mentioned that in addition to providing better access to weather data, this pilot could lead to opening up spectrum band for a next-gen 5G network. Let’s talk a little bit more about that.

Valerie: One thing we know for sure is that demand for data connectivity is set to surge in the years ahead as the Internet of Things continues to skyrocket.  The primary interaction most people have with wireless networks, of course, is our phones, and by some measures, a 5G network would make download speeds up to 100 times faster.

But Ligado’s focus is on industrial 5G.  We see this as the critical infrastructure we need to grow our economy.  Just like trucks get slowed down on crumbling roads, our economy will get choked if we don’t invest in faster, more reliable networks that reach more people in more parts of the country. 

Geoff: And the critical use cases for the industrial Internet of Things are endless. We’re talking about enabling and improving transportation solutions, public safety, and energy networks, for example.  One example I like to talk about is companies that deploy helicopters as air ambulances to assist the critically injured.  With a next-gen network in place, these companies can relay critical information from the helicopter to the hospital.  So the hospital will know with precision not just when the patient is scheduled to arrive, but they will also be able to monitor all the patient’s vitals in real-time right along with the helicopter crew, so that there will be no interruption of care.

Valerie: And as Geoff said, there are so many similar examples.  Right now, freight trains run through many parts of the country with limited or even no wireless network.  If we can take those areas from no coverage to next-gen 5G coverage, we’ll vastly improve communications and tracking between train and control center – which will create new efficiencies, and most importantly, make each trip safer.  What’s most exciting is that we can envision many of the benefits of building out the next-gen 5G network, but then there are all the breakthroughs we can’t even imagine yet.  The next few years will see an absolute explosion in technological innovation that will make our lives safer and better.  We just need to make sure the infrastructure is there to support it.

To learn more about the Ligado/GMU partnership, read the press release here.