LightSquared goes on the offensive in its battle with GPS
In boxing, when a fighter is backed into a corner and is getting pummeled, he has two choices: throw in the towel or start swinging. That’s the position LightSquared currently finds itself in, and today the company opted for the latter choice: It issued a press release in which it stated that its new plan for deploying its fledgling nationwide wholesale wireless broadband solves interference for “about 99.5% of commercial GPS devices, including 100% of the 300 million GPS-enabled cell phones.” It also went on the attack against the GPS sector, which has expressed grave concerns regarding the potential of interference to its operations from LightSquared’s network.
The new plan calls for LightSquared to use only the lower portion of its L-band spectrum, and not the upper portion, the latter of which abuts the spectrum band used for GPS services. It also will reduce the maximum power of its base stations by more than 50%. Theoretically, these tactics in concert will lessen the chance that interference to GPS operations will occur.
The Coalition to Save Our GPS — which counts among its members major GPS players such as Garmin and TomTom, as well as the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the American Petroleum Institute and Delta Airlines — doesn’t think much of LightSquared’s latest plan, calling it a “Hail Mary solution,” and a “non-starter.” The group issued its own statement in which it said that interference to some GPS devices still would occur even if LightSquared confined its operations to the lower portion of its spectrum band, and that the test results upon which LightSquared is basing its latest assertions are questionable.
In its press release, LightSquared said that the GPS community is responsible for this mess, because it had the opportunity over the last several years to install filters “that cost as little as five cents each” that would have mitigated any interference issues. Also, it has been alleged that some GPS devices are overly sensitive and thus prone to interference from LightSquared’s operations.
Moreover, some have suggested that the GPS sector was asleep at the switch regarding this matter until recently, and there seems to be some evidence to support the claim. In a May 31, 2011, letter to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski pointed out that satellite operators have been authorized to provide terrestrial services such as those being contemplated by LightSquared using L-band spectrum since 2004. Further, Genachowski reminded in the letter that an order issued by the commission in March 2010 — when Skyterra transferred control of the network to the company that became LightSquared — addressed all of the technical standards related to the proposed network, including LightSquared’s request to increase the power level of its base stations to the “exact level that the GPS industry is only now criticizing.” Moreover, in July 2009, the U.S. GPS Industry Council filed a joint letter with SkyTerra in which it agreed that the GPS interference issues “had been resolved,” Genachowski wrote. He pledged to Grassley that the commission would not allow LightSquared to launch its network until the concerns about “widespread harmful interference to GPS devices” are resolved.
But LightSquared isn’t under fire just from the GPS sector. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee reportedly added an amendment to legislation that would provide the FCC’s funding for fiscal 2012. The amendment would bar the commission from allowing LightSquared or any other entity to move forward with any service that would interfere with GPS operations.
In its press release today, LightSquared further pointed out that its network would provide an economic benefit to consumers worth as much as $120 billion. It didn’t provide any detail as to how it arrived at that figure, but that’s not the point. The point is that companies under siege from policymakers always play the economic-benefit trump card. It’s a play that always smacks of desperation. But who could blame LightSquared if it is a bit desperate at this point? The company has invested a lot of time, effort and money into this initiative. It has partners relying on it to deliver this network. It has investors who want a return on the large sums of money they’ve forked out. And the turmoil and uncertainty that currently surrounds this network is such that it is going to be much more difficult for LightSquared to find additional capital if it should need it in the future. If I were on LightSquared’s management team, I’d be desperate, too. Things haven’t been going very well lately.
Nevertheless, LightSquared today reiterated once more that it is committed to working with the GPS sector to find a solution — though the company couldn’t resist taking a swipe at its foes by suggesting that the GPS sector is less interested in finding common ground than it is in blocking the launch of LightSquared’s network. I hope that LightSquared and the GPS sector can end the backbiting and figure this out. I have seen the wonders of wireless broadband and would like to see all Americans reap the benefits that I enjoy. I also would like to see my wireless bill go down, which would be a happy byproduct — at least in theory — of increased competition.
But those desires pale in comparison to the need to make sure that nothing screws up GPS operations. Think of how much we rely on GPS in our daily lives. Think about the vital industries that also rely on GPS — maritime, construction, engineering, surveying, aviation and agriculture — not to mention the first- responder and homeland-security sectors. Then think about the chaos that would ensue if any of those sectors encountered interference to their GPS operations.
All through this debate LightSquared steadfastly has stuck to its mantra that technical solutions will be found to allay all “reasonable” interference concerns, and the company seems to be acting in good faith by agreeing to forego the upper portion of the L band and by dramatically cutting back on power. In contrast, the GPS sector’s approach seems to be focused on forcing LightSquared to use a different spectrum band.
But my brain keeps translating LightSquared’s mantra into, “nothing to see here folks, keep moving along.” That’s troublesome. Indeed, there is something happening here that demands thorough investigation. Despite LightSquared’s repeated assurances that all is well — or perhaps because of them — the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration both need to put on their detective hats and get out their magnifying glasses.
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