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Was the FCC’s LightSquared Waiver a Mistake?

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 1:13pm
Maisie Ramsay

It’s a question that’s been bugging me since the first warnings about LightSquared’s GPS interference surfaced in January: Did the FCC make a mistake when it decided to let LightSquared deploy 40,000 high-powered transmitters in spectrum directly adjacent to bandwidth used for GPS?

When the waiver was first granted, the GPS interference issue was little more than an afterthought thrown in to placate worrywarts at the Defense Department. Since then, it’s become painfully obvious that GPS interference is no minor affair. Preliminary tests from both the government and private sector show that LightSquared’s network, as feared, is capable of wiping out GPS systems used in everything from fighter jets to precision farm equipment.

Now, LightSquared has to figure out how to fix the interference problem or the FCC won’t let the company turn on its wireless network, laying waste to the millions of dollars the venture-backed company has invested in its network. 

This situation raises several questions, some of which the industry is still struggling to answer. Should LightSquared have been granted the waiver in the first place? Should the FCC have investigated the interference issue before granting the waiver and allowing LightSquared to move ahead with the massive investment in its LTE network? Was the FCC blinded by its push to get mobile broadband service out to more U.S. residents? If GPS interference is so problematic, why wasn’t the issue raised earlier? Where does LightSquared go from here?

In the course of my reporting, I reviewed FCC documents dating back to 2001 on LightSquared’s original plans to add land-based service – the “ancillary terrestrial component” - to its satellite network. LightSquared didn’t exist at the time, and the documents refer its predecessor, a company called Mobile Satellite Ventures, or MSV.

Back then, the FCC’s main concern was whether base stations on the ground would interfere with other satellite services, namely Inmarsat. MSV and Inmarsat spent years hashing out appropriate limits on “out of band emissions,” signals that leaked out of MSV’s spectrum into neighboring bandwidth that could cause interference to satellite service.

Neither the FCC nor the GPS industry appeared particularly concerned about the effect of MSV’s plans on sensitive GPS receivers at the time, and in July 2002, the U.S. GPS Industry Council and MSV said they were “pleased to inform” the FCC that they had “agreed on specific out-of-band emission ("OOBE") limits into the entire GPS band for the ancillary terrestrial component ("ATC") base stations and terminals that MSV will deploy in connection with its proposed next-generation Mobile Satellite Service system as described in the attached document. These OOBE limits are intended to protect GPS receivers.”

The FCC lifted limits on the number of base stations MSV was allowed to deploy, so long as it remained an “ancillary” component to its satellite service. As long as the signal sent out by the base stations wouldn’t interfere with MSV’s satellite transmissions or those of its neighbors in the L-band, the company could basically do as it pleased with its supplemental, land-based wireless service.

Jim Kirkland, general counsel at Trimble and spokesman for the Coalition to Save Our GPS, tells me that the FCC’s past requirement that MSV deploy terrestrial service only as a supplement to their satellite network served as de-facto protection to GPS receivers, since it effectively barred MSV from transmitting ground-based signals strong enough to interfere with its own satellite service. “If it didn’t cause widespread interference to themselves, it wouldn’t cause widespread interference to GPS,” Kirkland says. “The integration requirement really protected GPS from overload.” 

Nine years later, MSV was subsumed into LightSquared and the company announced an ambitious plan to launch a nationwide hybrid satellite-terrestrial LTE network. The plan raised eyebrows in the GPS industry, which argued that LightSquared’s latest proposal was a fundamental departure from its previously stated plans. The company wanted to deploy 40,000 base stations – more than it had previously stated in documents filed with the FCC – and drop the requirement that land-based base stations function only as an ancillary component to its satellite service, gutting the inherent protections ensured to GPS under the FCC’s prior regulations. 

The FCC, in the midst of a major push to expand access to high-speed Internet service under the National Broadband Plan, agreed to let LightSquared leverage its dirt-cheap satellite spectrum for land-only cell service, throwing in a clause to reassure other government agencies and the GPS industry that it agreed “on the need to address the potential interference concerns regarding GPS as LightSquared moves forward with plans to deploy and commence commercial operations on its network.”

The lax terms of the waiver infuriated the GPS industry and prompted scrutiny from lawmakers, who asked the FCC to “require LightSquared to objectively demonstrate non-interference as a condition prior to any operation of its proposed service… Anything less is an unacceptable risk to public safety.”

Since then, there’s been a good deal of finger pointing between LightSquared and the GPS industry on who’s to blame for the whole mess. Some say it’s the GPS industry’s fault for coming out with poorly engineered receivers, others say it’s the FCC’s fault for letting LightSquared move ahead with its scheme in the first place.

Assigning blame probably isn’t the best path forward at this point. LightSquared has to figure out how to get its network online without knocking out GPS service, and determining who’s culpable for the problem isn’t going to do much in the way of helping them solve it.

If anything, the GPS interference fiasco should prompt the FCC to do some soul-searching about the efficacy of its regulations. Perhaps it should have been more cautious when it granted LightSquared its waiver back in January.

If LightSquared is unable to resolve the effect its transmitters have on GPS, it won’t be able to deploy its LTE network, a potentially devastating blow to the company and a disappointing false start to the FCC’s mobile broadband ambitions.

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