Latest LightSquared Plan Hinges on Sharing Spectrum with Federal Government Agencies

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By Paul Barbagallo

As expected, LightSquared Inc.'s new proposal to revive its planned wireless network hinges on sharing a slice of airwaves with the federal government.

Ever since the Federal Communications Commission moved to block LightSquared's network over interference concerns in February, the company has been scrambling to come up with alternatives. The most logical and practical that has emerged appears to be sharing.

In its filing with the FCC late Sept. 28, LightSquared requested permission to share 5 MHz of spectrum which is now controlled by federal government agencies (1675-1680 MHz) and is adjacent to a 5 MHz block that the company is already licensed to use (1670-1675 MHz). Two swaths of 5 MHz would give the company the 10 MHz it needs to deploy a first-of-its-kind network capable of offering mobile broadband services to as many as 260 million people on a wholesale basis throughout the United States.

As part of the proposal, LightSquared would permanently relinquish its terrestrial-usage rights for the so-called “upper” 10 MHz of downlink frequencies (1545-1555 MHz) closest to global positioning systems operations.

In a separate petition, however, LightSquared asked the FCC to begin writing rules to allow terrestrial use of the company's “lower” 10 MHz of L-Band downlink spectrum at 1526-1536 MHz “in a manner to ensure further compatibility with GPS receivers.” Throughout any FCC rulemaking process, LightSquared “would not deploy its lower 10 MHz spectrum on its terrestrial network,” it said.

Taken together, these proposals would allow the company to “immediately expand on its existing, multibillion-dollar investment to build a network that brings more competition, choice, and access to hundreds of millions of Americans more quickly than any other potential new wireless network operator,” LightSquared said.

The company must now convince regulators to let it share the airwaves with federal government users.

“We are aware of LightSquared's interest in sharing the 1675-1680 MHz band with federal users,” a National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) spokeswoman said in an emailed statement Oct. 1, responding to a request for comment. “The primary federal agency using this spectrum is [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], which operates satellites and radiosondes in this band. If requested by the FCC, NTIA will work with NOAA to evaluate LightSquared's request as it affects federal government spectrum users,” the spokeswoman added.

In a speech given in July 2010, NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling said the agency was examining whether this spectrum could be shared with commercial entities, but has not yet drawn any conclusions.

LightSquared's proposal now comes as the both the FCC and NTIA are actively considering sharing arrangements as one way for wireless carriers to accommodate the ever-increasing consumer demand for smartphones and tablets, which require more spectrum to carry their data transmissions—significantly more than what is needed to carry cellular calls.

In July, the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology released a report calling for as much as 1,000 MHz of government-held spectrum to be shared with commercial broadband networks.

The report urges the president to issue a memorandum stating that it is now the policy of the U.S. government to “share underutilized federal spectrum to the maximum extent possible.”

Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment on LightSquared's proposal.

The matter of whether LightSquared and GPS device users can and should coexist has been the most technically complex and politically challenging one that the FCC has had to deal with during Chairman Julius Genachowski's tenure.

The agency has faced sharp criticism on Capitol Hill for not only granting LightSquared a conditional waiver to construct a network that had the potential of interfering with GPS devices, including those used by the military, but also for allegedly showing favoritism toward company executives who donated to the Democratic party.

Under pressure, the FCC on Feb. 14 moved to revoke LightSquared's conditional waiver, hours after the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration sent a letter to the agency saying there is “no practical way” to prevent LightSquared's network signals from interfering with critical global positioning systems devices.

GPS Maker Supports LightSquared's Proposal for Rulemaking.

Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of GPS-unit maker Trimble, issuing a statement Oct. 1 that indicates support for LightSquared's petition for a rulemaking to “consider the appropriate long term use of the mobile satellite spectrum adjacent to GPS.”

“Trimble hopes that this proceeding will permit a thorough assessment of the costs and benefits associated with such terrestrial use,” Kirkland said in an emailed statement. “Increasing the availability of spectrum for mobile broadband is important, but preservation and encouragement of innovation in location based products and services, where the US is a world technology leader, must not take a back seat to mobile broadband deployment.”

Over the past year, LightSquared has accused GPS manufacturers of not designing receivers that filter out signals in adjacent bands.

According to the company, GPS operators have not properly adhered to what is known as the Global Positioning System Standard Positioning Service Performance Standard, issued by the Department of Defense in September 2008, which calls for GPS receivers to filter out transmissions from adjacent bands to achieve optimal performance for the GPS system.

Government testing has confirmed that GPS receivers are too sensitive to filter out LightSquared's network transmissions from cell towers operating on nearby frequencies.

LightSquared, which filed for bankruptcy in May, is prevented from deploying its network while the FCC decides whether to revoke its initial conditional approvals, as it proposed doing in February. The agency has yet to take final action.

For LightSquared's filings, visit http://op.bna.com/der.nsf/r?Open=sbay-8ynnwd.