McAdams On: The People's Court

LightSquared to the Federal Communications Commission: "If we follow your rules, why can't we launch?"

FCC to LightSquared: "Um, we don't know."

And so the FCC is asking for public comment on LightSquared's petition that global positioning systems not be afforded protection from operations "conducted in accordance within the commission's technical parameters."

I.e., the commission is punting. Had it not fast-tracked a waiver for LightSquared's spectrum license, it wouldn't be in this mess. In his zeal to be the broadband-everywhere chairman, Julius Genachowski allowed a waiver that essentially redefines the L-band spectrum designation—that of satellite operations with terrestrial fill-in. LightSquared's proposed 4G LTE broadband network turns the designation on its head. Its infrastructure would consist of more than 40,000 terrestrial base stations with satellite coverage filling in the gaps.

The commission's waiver allows the flip-flop on the condition that LightSquared proves non-interference with GPS devices. GPS devices weren't designed in anticipation of predominately terrestrial operations in the L-band. They certainly should be going forward, but the non-robust versions are now doing everything from parking cars to flying missiles. Manufacturers are not about to issue a recall and stick a filter in them.

LightSquared's petition for a declaratory ruling is a Hail Mary after a game full of fumbles. LightSquared's chief financier, Phil Falcone, bungled by betting his investors' $3 billion on a business that DBS operators would have locked down 10 years ago were it technically feasible. The FCC goofed with fast-track waiver, as if no one would notice. GPS manufacturers are guilty of obscuring the obvious—if LightSquared transmissions throw off their devices, what's to stop your garden variety terrorist from doing so?

The commission may rely on the People's Court to determine LightSquared's fate, but it best take an object lesson and get down to the dirty work of overhauling its spectrum policy.