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FCC on LightSquared: We Will Protect GPS

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told reporters Tuesday that the FCC was not going to let LightSquared's proposed hybrid satellite/terrestrial broadband wireless service interfere with GPS. Period. FCC officials later said that the commission may have to do more testing of a modified LightSquared proposal to address those interference issues, but gave no timetable for when it would make that decision.

The chairman's assertion came in a press conference with reporters after the FCC's Aug. 9 monthly meeting. The FCC has put LightSquared's launch on hold until it resolves interference issues. But he also said the FCC's goal was to protect GPS and promote a service that will lead to job creation and billions in private investment.

In a background briefing with reporters following the FCC meeting, officials outlined the LightSquared timeline that led to a January waiver for LightSquared to offer separate satellite and terrestrial handsets, conditioned on its continuing to provide a robust satellite service and subsidizing the sets so that the cost of integrated and separate sets are equivalent.

LightSquared's customers are also required to buy a combined satellite/terrestrial service, though they could choose to offer only terrestrial and eat the cost of the satellite portion.

In the briefing, the officials pointed out that the waiver included the directive that the GPS interference issues had to be resolved before LightSquared could offer the service, so that it was both a conditional waiver and essentially a "stop work" order since the FCC had authorized the service in March 2010, before the most recent interference issues came to light.

To try and resolve those interference issues, LightSquared has submitted a modified proposal that, at least for the moment, will only use spectrum further away from the GPS allocation, but the FCC is looking for a resolution that will not require that large swaths of spectrum go fallow as a "guard band" between LightSquared's use and GPS. comments are due on that proposal Aug. 15, and the FCC officials said they had no timetable for deciding the next step, which could be further testing of the lower portion of the band that LightSquared will use to try and avoid the interference.

One official said that the commission would be sensitive to the financial situation of LightSquared's owner, Harbinger Capital, but that would not affect how it came to its decision on how to proceed.

The LightSquared proposal is to sell wireless broadband wholesale, a service the FCC officials point out will lead to more widespread deployment at lower cost.

LightSquared had asked the FCC for a ruling that it could offer separate terrestrial and satellite handsets and still meet the "integrated service" requirement in the FCC's March 2010 decision to let it use satellite spectrum to deliver terrestrial service. The FCC denied that blanket ruling, but said it would provide the conditional waiver.

While FCC Chairman Julius Genachowksi would clearly like to promote a service that could reach virtually the entire country and be priced to sell, the staffers seconded his assertion that the interference issue trumps other concerns. The staffers said they want to move as quickly as they can to resolve the issues, but that means however long it takes, adding they are just as committed to not interfering with airplane communications--the FCC is on the flight path to Reagan International Airport, a point punctuated by planes climbing and descending not far from the FCC's sixth floor conference room window.

There continued to be an interference problem, they said, particularly in the upper portion of the band closest to GPS. While LightSquared's proposal anticipates eventually using that spectrum as well, one FCC official said he did not see that happening anytime soon, and that the commission was focusing on the lower-band proposal.

IF the FCC does do further tests to see if LightSqared's new proposal, which includes reducing power as well as moving further from GPS, does the trick, a reporter for CNN asked if the press would be allowed to monitor those tests, pointing out that being a visual medium, CNN would like to show people that GPS would devices would still work under the newly proposed regime. An FCC official said the testing process would be an open one, but did not commit to letting CNN cameras record it.

"This letter appears to be a sign of desperation by LightSquared and the hedge fund that controls it," said a spokesperson for the Coalition to Save Our GPS in a statement. "GPS receivers incorporate filters that reject transmissions in adjacent bands that are hundreds of millions of times more powerful than those of GPS.  What LightSquared is proposing, however, is to transmit signals that are at least one billion times more powerful. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a filter that can block out signals in an immediately adjacent frequency band that are so much more powerful, nor has LightSquared put forward any credible, independent expert opinion or other evidence that this is possible." 

The coalition includes major GPS companies -- TomTom, Garmin -- as well as big GPS users including UPS, car rental companies, and airline associations.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.