FCC shoots down LightSquared's plans for satellite network

Plans by broadband company LightSquared for a nationwide 4G satellite network took a substantial hit Feb. 14, when the Federal Communications Commission said it would not allow the network because it interferes with Global Positioning System communications.

FCC’s ruling came on the heels of a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) report essentially agreeing with earlier tests concluding that LightSquared’s LTE network interfered with GPS transmissions and saying there was “no practical way” to solve the problem at the moment, the New York Times reported.

The commission now plans to propose rescinding the conditional waiver it had granted LightSquared to start building the network.

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The dispute over LightSquared’s proposed network and GPS signals goes back at least to May 2011, when a test, ordered by the FCC, at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., found that the network’s cellular signals took out GPS receivers used by first responders.

The network operates in the L Band of the radio frequency spectrum, at 1525 MHz to 1559 MHz, which is adjacent to the bands used by GPS and the Global Navigation Satellite System.

In September, government and industry officials supported the test findings in testimony before a House committee, saying the network — which could generate billions of dollars and, among other things, bring wireless broadband to rural areas that currently don’t have it — should not be allowed until the interference problems are settled.

LightSquared has contended that the problem stems from improperly designed GPS receivers, and offered to reduce power and limit the radio frequency spectrum its network would use to mitigate the problem.

“This is an issue of responsible receiver design,” Jeffrey Carlisle, LightSquared’s executive vice president for regulatory affairs and public policy, said during the hearing. “We are going to make a major investment in infrastructure,” of $14 billion over eight years, “but will do nothing to degrade GPS.”

However, other industry and government officials have said that redesigning GPS receivers to accommodate LightSquared’s network would be prohibitively expensive.

The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, is in the process of transitioning its air traffic control system from radar to GPS. The Transportation Department has estimated that making adjustments to accommodate LightSquared’s network could cost $72 billion and delay the program by 10 years — and might not eliminate interference anyway.

In addition to police and emergency crews, other government organizations make extensive use of GPS signals, including NASA, the Defense Department, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

After the FCC’s announcement Feb. 14, LightSquared officials disagreed with the NTIA’s tests, and saying that the FCC’s rulings  “disregard more than a decade of regulatory orders, and in doing so, jeopardize private enterprise, jobs and investment in America’s future,”  the Times reported.

The FCC has issued a call for public comments on the NTIA report, with comments due by March 1.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Feb 16, 2012 Amused

Part of the problem with this is not that the GPS receivers are not compliant. It is the fact that the POWER that is going to be used by the ground network will totally obliterate the GPS signals even with filtering. The FCC allowed them to use a frequency band that was originally designated to work at very LOW power for SATELLITE communications. This is another boondoggle that was brought about by this administration and the taxpayers will probably be left paying them to go away. Press releases have said that Light Squared has been working this program for TEN YEARS...and it is speculation on my part, but they waited until they had an FCC Commission staffed with political hacks instead of knowledgeable people and an administration willing to lean on the Commission to let them have the use permits. Wireless broadband is not going to be the answer; instead wired infratstructure in urban and suburban areas linked to LOW power wi-fi and then possibly the wireless broadband transmitters out where they can't interfere with anything.

Thu, Feb 16, 2012

It looks to me like what is best for either party is not what is best for the country as a whole. Lightsquared seems willing to work with the FCC and the GPS community to work out a near-term compromise as long as the FCC enforces long-term replacement of receivers that violate existing rules. The FCC and GPS equipment manufacturers need to take their lumps and comply.

Thu, Feb 16, 2012

This is a simple equation: The ongoing value and investment of GPS outweigh the value and investment of LightSquared in the particular piece of spectrum. They can succeed by moving their signal elsewhere in the available spectrum. Blaming the existing reality sounds immature and shrill.

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