LightSquared suffered a potentially fatal blow today after the Federal Communications Commission said it would indefinitely suspend the company’s license to turn on a combined satellite/terrestrial communications network because it would interfere with GPS systems operating on neighboring radio bands. The FCC had little choice after the National Telecommunications and Information Administration concluded there was no feasible way to prevent the two systems from clashing with each other. An advisory group to NTIA, which itself advises the White House, last month released the results of extensive testing it said showed that LightSquared “would cause harmful interference to many GPS receivers,” and further testing was futile. In a news release late today the FCC expressed regrets that LightSquared and the GPS community couldn’t figure out a way to solve the problem. LightSquared’s predecessor company was granted a license back in 2005 to operate the system, after extensive negotiations with the GPS Council, and billionaire investor Philip Falcone poured $3 billion, including much of his own fortune, into developing new handsets and launching a satellite with the largest radio antenna ever put into space.
This proceeding has revealed challenges to maximizing the opportunities of mobile broadband for our economy. 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. There are very substantial costs to our economy and to consumers of preventing the use of this and other spectrum for mobile broadband. Congress, the FCC, other federal agencies, and private sector stakeholders must work together in a concerted effort to reduce regulatory barriers and free up spectrum for mobile broadband. Part of this effort should address receiver performance to help ensure the most efficient use of all spectrum to drive our economy and best serve American consumers.
The FCC said it will begin a public proceeding tomorrow to discuss the NTIA’s conclusions. LightSquared has argued that the NTIA tests were rigged in favor of the GPS industry, which faces the prospect of civil liability for selling millions of receivers that are incapable of discerning between GPS frequencies and those on neighboring radio bands. Tractor maker John Deere, which installs advanced GPS units on many of its machines, Garmin and Trimble all have opposed LightSquared’s plans, while rival cellular operators AT&T and Verizon have quietly intervened in the regulatory process against LightSquared from time to time.
LightSquared profoundly disagrees with both the NTIA’s and the PNT’s recommendations, which disregard more than a decade of regulatory orders, and in doing so, jeopardize private enterprise, jobs and investment in America’s future. NTIA relies on interference standards that have never been used in this context, and were forced by the GPS community in order to reach the conclusions presented today. This, together with a severely flawed testing process that relied on obsolete and niche devices, shows that the FCC should take the NTIA’s recommendation with a generous helping of salt.Despite LightSquared’s success in finding technical solutions and the acknowledgement by a senior government official that GPS receivers are specifically designed to rely on spectrum licensed to LightSquared, it is extremely disappointing that this recommendation was made today. LightSquared said it will continue to negotiate toward a solution. Vulture investor Carl Icahn, meanwhile, has assembled a position in LightSquared bonds, perhaps sensing a way the spectrum can be salvaged for some economic use.