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House Panel Suggests More Testing for LightSquared

House legislators may require the FCC to hold off on considering LightSquared's revised plan for its proposed hybrid satellite/terrestrial nationwide 4G broadband network until "comprehensive new tests make sure the FCC is not approving a system that would pose risks to aviation safety."

LightSquared counters that it can proceed without interfering with aviation or maritime operations. It also says that if opponents got their way and blocked FCC authorization of the service, it could undermine the value of broadcast and other spectrum at auctions, which the FCC is teeing up and Congress is looking at to help boost the Treasury.

FCC granted a waiver to allow LightSquared to test the system and resolve interference issues with GPS systems. Conceding that early tests indicated that the 10 MHz block of spectrum it planned to use for its initial nationwide launch did pose that interference risk, the company said Monday it was going to plan B, which includes using an alternative 10 MHZ block of spectrum that it says "greatly reduces" that risk and is located further away from the GPS frequencies, and saying it will not use the original block until the FCC and NTIA, and by extension FAA, Coast Guard and others, are convinced it poses no risk to GPS. In addition, the company said that it will reduce its base station power by more than 50%, "which will provide additional protection to GPS."

But in a joint subcommittee hearing in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Thursday, Tom Petri (R-Wis.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, said that the revised plan had not been subject to a "full evaluation."

He said that based on the witness testimony provided for the hearing about LightSquared, and the importance of protecting GPS for aviation safety and innovation, he said the subcommittee "may request that the FCC allow time for full, comprehensive testing of the plan" for "potential harmful interference impacts."

The LightSquared field testing to date -- prompted by concerns of GPs users -- showed that "significant GPS interference would result if LightSquared were to roll out its terrestrial network as originally planned," he said. He pointed out that the FCC had been advised by one of those testing agencies, the multi-agency National PNT Engineering Forum (NPEF), to rescind the waiver for the adjacent spectrum LightSquared now says it won't use until it gets the go-ahead, and to "readdress" allowing it to use the other spectrum.

Petri conceded that LightSquared would be an "additional platform for commerce," which Republicans historically support. "But it must not interfere with aviation, job creation, or next generation [advances]," he said. He said that GPS users should not face new and costly burdens he said would be "unacceptable." Government witnesses at the hearing agreed that the new plan needed to be tested.

Also among the witness testimony offered up at the hearing was that from representatives of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Air Transport Association and GPS-maker Garmin. All of them are members of the Coalition to Save Our GPS.

They argued that LightSquared's change of plans to move and modify its proposal was no solution, and that it would cost the airline industry billions of dollars to put filters -- which don't yet exist -- on GPS receivers to mitigate interference, one of the LightSquared proposals, according to the group.

They also cited their just-released study estimating that potential interference from LightSquared's 40,000 base stations could represent a $96 billion hit on commercial GPS users and manufacturers. An industry that has lost $55 billion over the last decade can't handle that, they said, arguing that the only solution is to move LightSquared out of the L band of spectrum it wants to share with GPS.

Jeffrey Carlisle, EVP of regulatory affairs and public policy for LightSquared, was something of a lone voice in the wilderness as he defended the service as "fully compatible with GPS."

He said, unequivocally, that the company had no intention of operating in such a way as to compromise government or commercial aviation or maritime operations. In fact, he put it more bluntly. "We will not interfere with aviation or maritime operations in the United States," he said. He suggested that even if they did, the FCC would never allow it to do so.

He said the company would invest $14 billion over the next 10 years to build a wireless broadband network. The Obama administration has made ubiquitous wireless broadband deployment a national priority, with the President announcing that effort in his State of the Union speech.

Carlisle had some figures of his own. He said the effort would support over 15,000 jobs, deliver wireless broadband to 260 million people and provide over $120 billion in consumer benefits, "consistent with important public policy goals of expanding deployment of broadband service."

Carlisle said the GPS interference issue is not new, and that it has been working with the GPS industry for a decade. He said the new issue stems from GPS manufacturers producing devices that sense signals in LightSquared's licensed spectrum.

Carlisle said that there have been tests on the alternate, lower-frequency, spectrum band that shows it could be used without interference. He also pointed out that back when LightSquared sought increased power levels in 2009, the GPS industry did not object.

Petri asked whether Congress should step in legislatively beyond oversight. Carlisle said that the important thing is certainty. LightSquared invested $4 billion in the network after the GPS industry did not object to increased power levels. Now, he says, if there is "extraordinary action taken on a legislative or regulatory basis as result of this [GPS industry opposition] and we are not allowed to try to work this out on a cooperative basis," he said, "certainty about spectrum and the valuation of spectrum will be severely undermined in this country."

The FCC is looking to get $20 billion-$30 billion from auctioning spectrum from broadcasters and others. Carlisle said that won't happen if investors don't have certainty in the value of spectrum.