Citing Nagging Interference, FCC Denies LightSquared Petition

LightSquared—the wireless broadband network that was once the darling of the FCC because it would provide low-cost broadband services to the nation—should now be abandoned because it interferes with established GPS technology, the FCC said this week.

After months of disputes between LightSquared and various government agencies, the commission revoked the conditional approval it gave LightSquared last year. The FCC’s decision came after the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said “there is no practical way to mitigate the potential interference at this time” with GPS devices. The NTIA oversees telecommunications policy at the Commerce Department.

The FCC this week proposed barring near-term deployment of the LightSquared system and issued a request for public comment on the proposed action.

“LightSquared’s proposal to provide ground-based mobile service offered the potential to unleash new spectrum for mobile broadband and enhance competition,” the FCC said. “The Commission clearly stated from the outset that harmful interference to GPS would not be permitted. This is why the Conditional Waiver Order issued by the Commission’s International Bureau prohibited LightSquared from beginning commercial operations unless harmful interference issues were resolved.”

The FCC had at one time strongly backed LightSquared, agreeing with the company that its network could have relieved a potential spectrum shortage. It would also have contributed to the creation of jobs and supported President Obama’s mission to expand broadband throughout the nation. But that was not to be.

“This proceeding has revealed challenges to maximizing the opportunities of mobile broadband for our economy. In particular, it has revealed challenges to removing regulatory barriers on spectrum that restrict use of that spectrum for mobile broadband,” the FCC continued. “This includes receivers that pick up signals from spectrum uses in neighboring bands. There are very substantial costs to our economy and to consumers of preventing the use of this and other spectrum for mobile broadband.”

LightSquared has contended the problems it faced were caused the UPS industry and its receivers, which were not designed properly and whose signals were straying into nearby airwaves. The FCC could have told GPS users and systems manufacturers that they were at fault for using faulty devices. But that would have meant totally overhauling an industry now in widespread use.

Telecommunications experts told the New York Times that the interference caused by LightSquared appeared not to be the fault of the company. Because the satellite-telephone segment of airwaves, used by LightSquared, is next to the GPS band on the spectrum, GPS devices frequently received interference from those extraneous transmissions.

LightSquared appears to have lost the battle. The Virginia company, majority-owned by Philip Falcone, a New York hedge fund manager, said after the FCC’s decision that the testing on its network was “severely flawed.” Yet, the company said it “remains committed to finding a resolution with the federal government and the GPS industry to resolve all remaining concerns.”

It said the NTIA decision “disregards more than a decade of regulatory orders, and in doing so, jeopardize private enterprise, jobs and investment in America’s future.”

Part of LightSquared’s problem was opposition from key organizations and industries that make heavy use of GPS systems, including the military, aviation, construction and agriculture. Further tests were ordered, but the NTIA came down on the side of GPS.

Jeff Carlisle, LightSquared’s executive vice president for regulatory affairs and public policy, wrote on the company’s blog earlier in the week that the GPS industry had apparently become “too big to fail” and was now seeking protection from the federal government for its own mistakes.