|LightSquared: The Show’s Over ...Or Should Be
|By Barry Manz
There are a lot of very technically astute people at the Federal Communications Commission. Many have decades of experience at every level of RF and microwave technology. How then might LightSquared’s proposal for a satellite/terrestrial LTE network have ever gotten past its first hurdle? Even a cursory inspection of the plan, in which the company's network would operate extremely close to GPS frequencies at L-band, makes interference to GPS devices almost a certainty.
Yet here we are in 2012 and the issue of whether or not the LightSquared’s plan can proceed is still with us. This is because even though the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2012 signed into law on December 31 specifically addresses the subject of GPS interference, it leaves the final decision to the FCC. Subtitle B: Space Activities:
• “Prohibits the Federal Communications Commission from lifting any conditions imposed on commercial terrestrial operations or otherwise permitting such operations until it has resolved concerns of widespread harmful interference by such operations to the Global Positioning System (GPS) devices of DoD.
• Requires the FCC, prior to permitting such operations, to make available the final working group report mandated by the Order and Authorization numbered DA 11-133, and to provide all interested parties an opportunity to comment on such report.
• Directs the FCC, at the conclusion of proceedings concerning such operations, to submit to specified congressional committees official copies of documents containing the FCC final decision on whether to permit the operations.
• Provides that, if the FCC decision is to permit such operations, such documents shall contain an explanation of how DOD GPS devices interference concerns have been resolved.”
Although LightSquared is not specifically mentioned, the intent of the clause is clear: It’s the FCC’s decision to make. As whole industries along with Department of Defense have furiously fought LightSquared every inch of the way, and since the evidence is overwhelming that no matter what contortions LightSquared performs going forward its network is incompatible with its spectral neighbor, we already have the answer. This leaves a formidable communication satellite, with the largest antenna array ever launched, hovering and ready to transmit and receive -- nothing. In addition, the proposal’s demise may well take down Philip Falcone and his Harbinger Capital Management hedge fund, the founder of LightSquared, and its investors.
No one can fault Falcone for proposing such a network, whose goal is ostensibly to increase competition in the wireless industry by selling LTE service to companies such as Best Buy (an early LightSquared sign-up), which could then create their own LTE “brands”. It could also have increased the number of people who could avail themselves of high-speed data service who are currently deprived of it. The company also claimed it would be beneficial to the economy. However, the juxtaposition of its frequency allocation next to GPS, which is inextricably linked to industry, aviation, and the military, makes it (or should have immediately have made it) a nonstarter.
The curious part of this is how such a fundamentally flawed plan got as far as it did. Faced with blistering criticism, the company moved to a block of frequencies somewhat further away, which still left precision GPS devices vulnerable. A government report (one of several conducted along the way) recently concluded that this wouldn’t work either.
In between, LightSquared fought back by claiming that there would be no problem if manufacturers of consumer GPS devices had provided protection using a “five cent filter”. This is a specious point – and irrelevant -- as hundreds of millions of GPS devices are already in service and GPS has had no such threat lurking in its spectral proximity since its inception. Presumably LightSquared would have us all retrofit our smartphones, cars, and stand-alone portable GPS receivers (instructions hopefully included). And that filter would have had to have insane levels of rejection, negating the ludicrous nickel-a-filter price point – if such a filter could be produced at all. The company also launched a public relations offense to little effect.
When situations like this arise a handy place to look for answers is politics, and this case reeks of it. The LightSquared proposal has been pushed onward in the face of obvious evidence that no matter how the company spins it, the service will cause interference to GPS services. The scenario is somewhat akin to that of Solyndra, the “now reorganizing” solar panel manufacturer boosted by the Obama administration. A little due diligence in either case would have shown that neither was a slam dunk. But when a plan fits politicians’ view of boosting something “desirable”, such as the U.S. solar panel market or bridging the “broadband divide” (both administration initiatives), common sense and intelligence aren’t desirable. At least in the case of LighSquared, the taxpayer wasn’t pinched for $500 million.
It’s time for the LightSquared saga to come to a close, as it should have a week after it was first proposed.
Barry Manz is a contributing editor to Microwave Product Digesting can be reached at email@example.com.