Final Blow for LightSquared?

One source for our recent coverage of LightSquared’s battle with the GPS community said, “Now it’s a slugfest.” As of this week, it would seem that a technical knock out may be imminent.

Yesterday the FCC issued a public notice in which it proposed vacating the conditional waiver it had granted LightSquared in January of 2011 and indefinitely suspending LightSquared’s authorization to operate a terrestrial communications network to supplement its mobile satellite services. As many news commentators have pointed out, this portends a devastating blow for the company.

But it’s interesting to ponder what might have happened if LightSquared had not approached the FCC and gotten that conditional waiver. It’s too late for LightSquared to roll back the clock now; still, consider what could have happened had the company played its cards differently.

As the new public notice from the FCC makes clear, the GPS community hadn’t raised any real fuss until LightSquared sought more wiggle room in interpreting FCC rules. What exactly was the company trying to do? The answer requires going over some of the relevant regulatory history, which is well described in yesterday’s public notice. Here’s the short version:

LightSquared’s predecessor companies began working nearly a decade ago on plans to augment its satellite communications services with an “ancillary terrestrial component” or ATC. The ATC was to be a conventional cellular network that could handle some users’ wireless traffic, say, calls to and from urban areas, which aren’t served well by satellites because big buildings tend to get in the way.

In 2003 and 2004, the FCC essentially approved those plans. The key thing is that the ATC would be allowed operate on frequencies that had been previously reserved for satellite services. That was a huge win for the company because it essentially granted it a big slice of terrestrial wireless spectrum that it didn’t have to purchase at auction. In 2005 the FCC went even further and removed some limitations it had previously set on the number of terrestrial base stations the company could deploy for its ATC. The GPS community raised no objections to any of this.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the GPS community voiced concerns about possible interference, but the issue was swiftly resolved. Indeed, the GPS community only came out in force against LightSquared’s plans when the company asked the FCC for one more inch of rope: LightSquared wanted the FCC to allow it to satisfy the requirement that it offer an integrated satellite-terrestrial service by merely selling such a service to its wholesale customers. LightSquared wanted those customers (various wireless providers) to be allowed to resell terrestrial wireless service without it being part of a satellite-communications package.

In January of last year, the FCC ruled that this would be a breach of its integrated-service requirement. But it also granted LightSquared a waiver of that rule, conditioned on it showing that carrying out its plans would not cause harmful interference to GPS receivers.

Various technical analyses of the past year have indicated that LightSquared’s planned operations would indeed compromise the functioning of GPS, which is why the FCC now indicates it may vacate the conditional waiver it had granted and may even suspend LightSquared’s authorization to operate an ATC.

So it’s interesting to ponder what would have happened if LightSquared had left well enough alone and not asked for permission for its wholesalers to split up satellite and terrestrial services. In theory, it could have constructed a truly ancillary terrestrial network using satellite frequencies. In theory, it could have deployed a vast number of high-power base stations for this. And in theory, it could have caused widespread disruption to GPS—all within the bounds of the rules the FCC had set for it.

It’s hard for me, anyway, to see why such an awkward situation couldn’t easily have arisen. So perhaps we should all be grateful that LightSquared got a little greedy and tried to take the A off of ATC. Otherwise some very dangerous disruptions to GPS might have taken people by surprise.

PHOTO: US Department of Energy

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