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LightSquared Runs Hill's Gauntlet Over GPS Issues

LightSquared executive Jeffrey Carlisle had to run a gauntlet of government agencies and their warnings about floods and hurricanes and volcanoes and train derailments and airline crashed and failed search and rescue missions as he defended his company before the House Committee on Science, space and Technology.

He came armed with a new proposal just submitted to the FCC that would further reduce power levels and the promise to fund research on GPS devices that would not stray into his allocated spectrum, but he was one of seven hearing witnesses, the other six hammering on his company and the potential havoc they suggested it could wreak on countless GPS-based systems.

Lightsquared wants to offer a wholesale national wireless net that could be branded by its potential cable and other clients who want to launch a wireless service or add it to their bundle of offerings. It has struck a deal to pay Sprint $9 billion to build the net.

The FCC, which granted the company a waiver to operate a primarily terrestrial network using what was meant to be primarily satellite spectrum operating on low power levels, also got hammered by one of the witnesses for not having all the facts about the potential impact of that waiver and letting its enthusiasm for a new competitive wireless network drive its decision.

Carlisle faced few encouraging words from legislators on the panel as well, all of whom said they recognized the need for more wireless spectrum, but not one that would interfere with critical systems like airline navigation or their constituents GPS devices.

But committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) appeared to put the issue in perspective. She said that everyone agreed that there is no question that GPS has transformed the economy and society -- Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-Tex.) had cited statistics that GPS was responsible for $3 trillion in economic activity. No doubt about its critical role in public safety she said. But, given that the government also has an interest in promoting broadband networks, the question is whether GPS can exist side-by-side with a ground-based broadband network. She said she sincerely hoped it could given the value of both, and that the key is whether it is an insurmountable issue of physics or a solvable technical issue.

She said if there were not such a solution, she would not expect the FCC to give the service its go-ahead -- it has yet to approve operation of the network pending resolution of the GPS issues. But she also said she did not think the FCC would make a decision that would compromise GPS.

Carlisle was certain there was a solution, and that it was not a "zero sum game" of either GPS or LightSquared.

The thrust of the testimony from the federal agencies lined up to testify was that that wireless broadband was important, and that they hoped there was a solution, but that it would only come with more testing and, before that, there were too many issues to allow the service to go forward. That lineup comprised the GPS industry's Anthony Russo of The National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing; Mary Glackin, Deputy Under Secretary, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Dr. Victor Sparrow, Director, Spectrum Policy, Space Communications and Navigation, Space Operations Mission Directorate, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Peter Appel, Administrator, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Department of Transportation; Dr. David Applegate, Associate Director, Natural Hazards, U.S. Geological Survey; and Dr. Scott Pace, Director, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University.

LightSquared had already modified its initial proposal once to say it would move to a swath of lower spectrum further from GPS and reduce power, though it also said it planned to eventually use the upper spectrum once the FCC gave the OK.

The administration witnesses and Pace all said there were still problems with the lower band as well. Carlisle countered that the problems were with supersensitive receivers and pointed out that per a 2002 agreement the company was not bleeding into GPS spectrum, it was a GPS receiver problem that that industry did not raise until last year.

Pace countered that the reason was that the issue did not come up earlier is that LightSquared only last year asked for a waiver to operate far more powerful ground transmitters using that satellite spectrum. Russo said those LightSquared signals would be five billion times more powerful than the satellite GPS signals, or the difference between a teaspoon of water and Niagara falls.

Pace said the FCC had to take some responsibility for the issue. He said integral to early discussions about the service were that the terrestrial component was to be ancillary, a fill-in portion of a primarily satellite service, and that the FCC was still going to reserve that spectrum for lower-powered satellite service. He said when LightSquared last year asked the FCC for a waiver for the larger ground component (to get the kind of speed and bandwidth to deliver a competitive new wireless service), the FCC should have put that request out for notice and comment. In this case, he said, "they granted a waiver without, in my view, sufficient technical data in hand, then made a major change in the allocation from satellite to terrestrial. For the worthy cause of more broadband, sufficient homework was not done and that led to the situation we have today."

Carlisle suggested that the GPS industry had not done sufficient homework on their receivers, and his company was now left to try and respond with proposal modifications costing a hundred million dollars, offering to foot the bill to research developing better GPS receivers, and having invested billions based on the FCC's waivers and authorizations.

To Johnson's point that she hoped the two could co-exist, Carlisle said he was sure of it. "This is an issue responsible receiver design," he said, "a technical issue that can be solved just as it is when anyone deploys a wireless network."