LightSquared's problems stem from a decision to use frequencies originally licensed for satellite communication for a terrestrial network. Because of the significantly higher power used for terrestrial communications, this results in interference with existing GPS signals on adjacent frequencies.
Earlier this year LightSquared's network was approved by the FCC, but that approval was conditional. Among the FCC's conditions was that LightSquared satisfy the NTIA that potential GPS problems were solved. The NTIA has conducted two rounds of testing, and so far LightSquared's network has failed both, meaning they have not met the FCC's conditions.
Apparently abandoning the hope of getting NTIA approval, LightSquared has now petitioned the FCC asking for unconditional approval on the grounds the GPS industry demands they pay for modifications to existing equipment. These modifications were designed at LightSquared's request, and are apparently the only solution they have been able to identify.
As they have done repeatedly over the last few months, LightSquared makes a number of misleading statements in their petition to the FCC which make it appear the GPS industry knew this problem was coming for years, but chose to manufacture equipment which doesn't work with LightSquared's signal. Specifically, they allege [full filing below]:
the commercial GPS industry is mistaken that LightSquared must bear the financial burden resulting from the failure of the commercial GPS industry, for almost a decade, to account for the deployment of LightSquared?s network in the design and manufacture of commercial GPS receivers.
In fact it was only this year that LightSquared was given approval to operate a terrestrial network on the scale they are now contemplating. A decade prior a very different plan was approved by the FCC which would have allowed them to operate ancillary (ATC) terrestrial towers for dual band satellite phones. These towers would have been used only to extend their signal to areas where satellite coverage was problematic.
In fact, when the FCC approved LightSquared's current plan earlier this year, it required a waiver because it doesn't conform to the regulations for ancillary transmissions on the satellite band. In their finding, the FCC wrote [full order below]:
we agree with AT&T, CTIA, the U.S. GPS Industry Council, and Verizon Wireless and disagree with LightSquared, Free Press, et al., and T-Mobile, and find that LightSquared?s wholesale customers cannot offer terrestrial-only service to their subscribers without violating LightSquared?s obligations under the rules. We turn now to whether to grant LightSquared a waiver of the integrated service rule.
Additionally, while the GPS industry certainly raised objections to LightSquared's plan, it is the NTIA, a government agency, whose approval was required by the FCC as a condition of that waiver:
ILightSquared may commence offering commercial service on its MSS L-band frequencies under the authority granted herein only upon the completion of the process for addressing interference concerns relating to GPS, as set forth in paragraphs 41-43 of this Order.
Those paragraphs say:
Commission staff will work with NTIA, LightSquared, and the GPS community, including appropriate Federal agencies, to establish a working group to fully study the potential for overload interference to GPS devices and to identify any measures necessary to prevent harmful interference to GPS. As a condition of granting this waiver, the process described below addressing the interference concerns regarding GPS must be completed to the Commission?s satisfaction before LightSquared commences offering commercial service pursuant to this waiver on its L-band MSS frequencies.
The process will be complete once the Commission, after consultation with NTIA, concludes that the harmful interference concerns have been resolved and sends a letter to LightSquared stating that the process is complete.
In short, the FCC has no obligation to approve LightSquared's plan at all. They are granting an exception to the rules, and therefore have a great deal of latitude in setting the conditions for approval.
From a practical point of view. It doesn't really matter whether the GPS industry is at fault, or whether users of GPS units which are incompatible with LightSquared's network are entitled to protection under the law. A network which interferes with the GPS units used in aviation, agriculture, GIS, and many other applications simply isn't going to be allowed to operate.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this whole mess is that the basic reason for the FCC's conditional approval is sound. There seems to be no question the US needs more mobile competition, and a national wholesale network with 4G service would enable that in a unique way.
In many ways it would level the playing field by making it possible for regional carriers to offer service comparable to giants like AT&T and Verizon. At the same time, if that competition comes at the expense of working GPS, is it really worth the cost?
Written by: Rich Fiscus @ 21 Dec 2011 3:50