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Is Another Satellite Versus Broadband Spectrum Fight Brewing?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Nov-2012
Updated: 05-Nov-2012 10:25 AM

The LightSquared debate raised awareness over the battle for radiofrequency spectrum to meet seemingly insatiable consumer demand for phone and Internet access over a mushrooming array of mobile devices.  LightSquared pitted its plan to respond to that demand against another consumer favorite and public safety essential -- GPS.   While that fight continues, another is brewing as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers requiring spectrum to be shared between weather satellites and commercial cellular carriers.

Tony Dejak of the Associated Press (AP) reports at NextGov.com that the FCC wants to require weather satellites to share spectrum in the 1695-1710 megahertz (MHz) band with commercial cellular carriers, a proposal backed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).   NTIA, part of the Department of Commerce, regulates use of spectrum by the government, while the FCC plays that role for the private sector.  According to Dejak, the two agencies endorsed the proposal at an August 2012 spectrum planning meeting.

Experts cited by Dejak point out that NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Europe's Metop satellites transmit certain data in that band, and data from the U.S. Geological Survey's national network of more than 3,000 stream gauges is transmitted back to Earth at 1694.5 MHz, just below it -- "too close for comfort, as poorly designed receivers could interfere with the signals."

Poor receiver design is the crux of LightSquared's argument that it designed its hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband system in accordance with every FCC requirement, but that GPS receiver manufacturers failed to design their receivers to ignore signals in adjacent bands.  LightSquared is down but not out in that battle, as it continues to try to find a way to operate its system without harming the GPS system on which consumers, air traffic control, the military and so many others rely.   After more than a year of hostile congressional hearings in 2011 and early 2012, the company finally found some friends at a September 2012 House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing at which FCC officials testified.  But the future is cloudy at best for the company, which already has its satellite, SkyTerra, in orbit.  The argument is over the 40,000 cell towers it wants to build to augment the system.

Weather satellites are every bit as crucial as GPS for public safety, as Hurricane Sandy demonstrated just last week.  Companies trying to get access to weather satellite frequencies may find themselves up against many of the same opponents as LightSquared.   Congress has been dealing with spectrum policy issues for many years, and it looks as though it will continue to have to weave its way through competing demands for new services and protecting existing ones.


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