June 21, 2011

LightSquared Unveils Plan To Avoid GPS Interference

Start-up firm LightSquared said on Monday that it plans to use a different block of spectrum for its nationwide wireless broadband network than originally planned to prevent the network from interfering with U.S. GPS navigation systems.

The Virginia-based company, owned by Philip Falcone's Harbinger Capital Partners hedge fund, said the new plan would not alter its original schedule to roll out the network.

"This is a solution which ensures that tens of millions of GPS users won't be affected by LightSquared's launch. At the same time, this plan offers a clear path for LightSquared to move forward with the launch of a nationwide wireless network," said LightSquared Chief Executive Sanjiv Ahuja in a statement.

The company said that moving some of its operations to a different set of airwaves and transmitting signals at lower power levels would ensure its network would not interfere with GPS systems that utilize nearby wireless spectrum.

The announcement coincides with concerns that the new network might affect vital GPS systems used for aviation, public safety and even some military operations.

A recent release of government test results revealed that LightSquared's wireless signals interfered with GPS receivers used by NASA and the U.S. Coast Guard, and caused Federal Aviation Administration GPS receivers and those used by state law enforcement and emergency response crews to lose reception.  The signals were also found to have jammed other systems.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave LightSquared approval in January to construct a nationwide wireless network that would compete with ultra-fast systems being built by AT&T and Verizon.  

LightSquared's business plan is to sell wholesale access to its network to other companies, which will rebrand the service under their own names.

The FCC sees the LightSquared network as part of a comprehensive government goal to deliver broadband Internet access to all Americans.

Ahuja said the company remains committed to reaching 260 million Americans with its network by 2015, and hopes to meet that goal at least a year early.

However, the company's plans have caused concern among GPS equipment makers, government agencies and companies that depend on GPS systems, because LightSquared's network would use airwaves adjacent to those already reserved for GPS.

They warn that sensitive satellite receivers designed to detect weak signals coming from space could be overwhelmed when LightSquared starts transmitting high-powered signals from as many as 40,000 transmitters on the ground.

The FCC has said it will not allow LightSquared to rollout its new network until the interference issues are resolved, and is requiring the company to participate in a technical working group with GPS users and manufacturers to resolve the matter.

Last month, that group conducted GPS interference tests using LightSquared equipment in Las Vegas.  The results of the testing were due to the FCC last week, but LightSquared filed for a two-week filing extension.

But GPS equipment makers say the results revealed significant interference problems with LightSquared's equipment "“ results supported by separate tests conducted by other groups as well.

According to an Associated Press report, a working group of the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing "” a federal organization that advises and coordinates among federal agencies that depend upon GPS technology "” recently released the results of tests conducted in April by various government agencies in New Mexico that confirmed the potential for extensive GPS interference.

Other tests conducted by RTCA, a group that advises the Federal Aviation Administration, concluded that LightSquared's use of spectrum closest to the GPS airwaves would result in a "complete loss of GPS receiver function" over large metropolitan areas.

LightSquared acknowledged on Monday that a 10-megehertz section of spectrum it had planned to use for the initial launch of its network would cause problems for many GPS receivers.  As a result, the company said it would use a different block of spectrum currently held by mobile satellite provider Inmarsat, Lightsquared said.

The new block is farther away from GPS frequencies, and would not interfere with the vast majority of GPS receivers, LightSquared said.

The company already held a spectrum-sharing agreement with Inmarsat, which has disclosed a $40 million payment from LightSquared.

LightSquared committed on Monday to resolving the remaining interference concerns for a limited number of high-precision GPS receivers used mainly in construction, farming and surveying equipment.   The company also said it would reduce the maximum allowed power for its base-station transmitters by more than half to provide additional GPS protection.  It will also work with the government and commercial GPS users to examine additional ways to protect GPS systems as it builds out its network.

"LightSquared believes that its next-generation... network can live harmoniously, side-by-side, with GPS users," the company said in its statement.

However, GPS equipment makers remain skeptical. 

Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of GPS manufacturer Trimble Navigation Ltd., described LightSquared's new plan as a "Hail Mary move", saying the results from the recent tests show that even if LightSquared moves to the Inmarsat spectrum, it will still interfere with many vital GPS receivers beyond just precision receivers.

The full report from the study group is due to the FCC by July 1.


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