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LightSquared Finally Finds Friends in Congress

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Sep-2012
Updated: 30-Sep-2012 03:35 PM

Last year, congressional hearing after congressional hearing raised dire warnings of the catastrophe that would result if LightSquared was allowed to proceed with its hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband communications system.  LightSquared would cause interference with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, critics claimed, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should never have granted the company a conditional waiver to proceed.  Times have changed.  The FCC now is being criticized at yet another congressional hearing for subsequently suspending LightSquared's waiver even as the Commission continues to review the situation.

At a September 21 hearing before the Investigations and Oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the heads of FCC's International Bureau (IB) and the Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) were grilled by subcommittee chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) and other members.   They wanted to know why the FCC suspended LightSquared's waiver in February one day after receiving a letter from its sister agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  The letter said LightSquared's system would cause harmful interference to GPS receivers and there was no practical way to fix the problem at this time.

The FCC regulates use of the electromagnetic spectrum by the private sector.   NTIA, part of the Department of Commerce, performs the same function for government users. 

LIghtSquared wants to operate a system using its satellite, SkyTerra, launched in 2010, plus 40,000 terrestrial cell towers to offer wireless mobile broadband Internet service nationwide.   The FCC had long ago approved the L-band frequencies for SkyTerra, a mobile communications satellite, to one of LightSquared's predecessor companies.  Those frequencies are adjacent to a band used by GPS receivers and as long as the signals are from satellites, no interference should occur.  What LightSquared also needs, however, is permission to build out an "ancillary terrestrial component" (ATC) of cell towers to broaden the reach of its system.  The FCC had granted permission for mobile satellite providers to use the Mobile Satellite Service portion of the L-band for terrestrial services in 2003.

As IB chief Mindel de la Torre and OET chief Julius Knapp detailed at the September 21 hearing, LightSquared and its predecessor companies had been working with the FCC for a decade, but it was not until the FCC granted LightSquared a conditional waiver for LightSquared's 40,000 cell tower ATC in January 2011 that the GPS industry began complaining about "receiver overload" issues if LightSquared proceeded.  The terrestrial signals, GPS advocates argued, would overwhelm GPS receivers, rendering them useless.   FCC's conditional waiver required LightSquared to form a joint technical working group with the GPS industry to perform tests to determine what interference would result and resolve any concerns.

Throughout 2011 and until February 2012, repeated congressional hearings pummeled LightSquared -- and the FCC for granting the conditional waiver -- calling in witnesses who raised the specter of catastrophe in the air and on the ground if LightSquared was allowed to proceed and GPS receivers failed.   An interagency group that oversees government use of GPS, the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board, issued its own dire warnings and worked through NTIA to reverse the FCC's decision.

It worked.   On February 14, 2012, NTIA wrote to the FCC saying there was no practical way at this time to mitigate the interference with GPS receivers.  The FCC immediately announced it would "indefinitely suspend" the waiver and seek public comment. The public comment period closed in March and the FCC continues to review those comments.  LIghtSquared cannot proceed with the ATC in the interim.  

LightSquared has insisted throughout the debate that it has followed every FCC requirement and the problem stems from improperly designed GPS receivers, not its system.  Lacking permission to proceed, however, the company declared bankruptcy in May after investing $4 billion in the system.  It continues to try and find a resolution, however.   Doug Smith, appointed as President of LightSquared in August, said the company "remains committed to working with all stakeholders to find an equitable resolution to the regulatory challenges" and ensure the American public can have access to both GPS and LightSquared's services.

Rep. Stearns is now coming to LightSquared's defense.  Complaining about LightSquared's lost investment and underutilization of L-band spectrum, he backs LIghtSquared's position that the problem is with the GPS receiver manufacturers, not LightSquared.  Stearns is in his last months in Congress after losing his Republican primary earlier this year.

The FCC witnesses explained that the Commission continues to review the comments it received and potential methods of mitigating the interference.  Stearns tried to force the FCC witnesses to agree that there are, in fact, remedies, but Knapp would say only that there are alternatives "worth considering."  He stressed there is no way to know if they will work until tests are conducted and declined to give a timeframe when the Commission will finish its review.

Subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette (D-CO) defended the FCC, saying it had been put in a no-win situation and took "responsible steps," noting that Congress does not have the expertise to dispute the FCC's technical judgments.

The LightSquared controversy is part of a much broader issue of spectrum policy.   The spectrum is a limited natural resource whose use is regulated by the government for the public good.  The Obama Administration and Congress each assert they are trying to establish policies to spur innovation and competition in the burgeoning telecommunications services market.  It is not only good business for companies, but can also be a source of revenue for the government, which auctions spectrum to make those services possible. 


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