FCC seeks to kill LightSquared's LTE network plan

The agency is proposing to suspend LightSquared's LTE plan amid findings of GPS interference

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission wants to drop the conditional waiver that could have allowed LightSquared to operate an LTE network in frequencies near the GPS band, potentially killing the carrier's plan to offer a hybrid satellite and cellular mobile data network.

LightSquared wants to offer a mobile data service over both satellite and LTE (Long-Term Evolution), selling access to each network at wholesale to other carriers. The FCC issued a conditional waiver last year that would have let LightSquared operate the LTE network in its licensed frequencies, on the condition that it didn't cause interference with GPS. Subsequent tests showed interference between the two networks.

On Tuesday, after the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) told the FCC there was no solution to the interference at this time, the FCC proposed vacating its conditional waiver for LightSquared and suspending indefinitely the carrier's authority to operate a land-based network. The NTIA coordinates federal uses of spectrum.

The FCC plans to issue a public notice Wednesday seeking comment on its proposals and on the NTIA's conclusions.

LightSquared did not have an immediate comment on the FCC's proposals.

If adopted, those proposals would effectively kill LightSquared's LTE plan and hybrid business model. The company had bet on being granted permission to do what no other carrier has done, operating both a satellite network that would reach users throughout the country and a full-scale cellular network that would provide faster service in the most populated areas. The latter was built from the concept of Ancillary Terrestrial Component, which was intended originally as a limited land-based network to supplement satellite coverage in built-up urban areas shielded from satellite signals.

LightSquared has sought to build a full LTE network that could stand on its own and to sell service on that network separately from satellite services. That type of offering has much broader market potential than satellite broadband, changing LightSquared's business prospects. Last year, it reached a $9 billion, 15-year deal to use Sprint Nextel's planned Network Vision infrastructure for its services.

The carrier has claimed that its authority to run a full-scale terrestrial network goes back several years, while GPS manufacturers have said that plan didn't come into the picture until late 2010. When the FCC issued its conditional waiver in January 2011, it required tests to gauge interference with GPS. Those tests found interference between the two networks, but LightSquared and GPS manufacturers disagreed over the cause of the problem. GPS makers blamed the overwhelming power of LTE signals close to GPS receivers, while LightSquared said those receivers improperly looked into its own frequencies in addition to their own.

In its statement on Tuesday, the FCC emphasized its continuing goal of making more spectrum available for mobile broadband and fostering more competition in that market. It also indirectly acknowledged LightSquared's concerns about GPS receivers.

"This proceeding has revealed challenges to maximizing the opportunities of mobile broadband for our economy," FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun said in a written statement. "In particular, it has revealed challenges to removing regulatory barriers on spectrum that restrict use of that spectrum for mobile broadband. This includes receivers that pick up signals from spectrum uses in neighboring bands."

The agency called on government and private stakeholders to work together to free up spectrum. "Part of this effort should address receiver performance to help ensure the most efficient use of spectrum to drive our economy and best serve American consumers," Sun said.

The Coalition to Save Our GPS, which has acted as the voice of many GPS makers and users during the debate, welcomed the FCC's proposals.

"The Coalition stands ready to work with the NTIA and the FCC to address the important policy issuesA relating to longer term use of satellite spectrum and reduction of potential interference to maximize the efficient use of all satellite spectrum," the group said in a statement.

The FCC's proposals will probably lead to a proceeding that will last well past the November U.S. presidential election, analyst Tim Farrar of TMF Associates said in a blog post. Even then, it's unlikely any network would be allowed in LightSquared's spectrum until at least 2020, he said. The company may be forced to decide soon whether to file for bankruptcy, Farrar said. LightSquared has said it has enough capital to wait "several quarters" for FCC approval.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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