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Lightsquared Ingratiating Itself With Lawmakers by Donating Phones to Native Americans

Phillip Dampier August 9, 2011 Editorial & Site News, LightSquared, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Lightsquared Ingratiating Itself With Lawmakers by Donating Phones to Native Americans

LightSquared’s basic business plan of delivering a nationwide 4G network has been an open question ever since the company’s technology threatened to obliterate GPS satellite navigation technology.  Now the company is taking a page from the Washington’s Public Relations Firm Playbook by ingratiating itself with important lawmakers that can make or break the multi-billion dollar endeavor.

LightSquared announced it is donating equipment and service to Native American organizations, starting in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Arizona — all conveniently located in key lawmakers’ states and districts.  In addition to agreeing to provide satellite phone service to remote tribal communities completely unserved by other technologies, LightSquared is also contributing 2,000 satellite telephones to the Indian Health Service, the federal agency responsible for administering health care to native populations on reservations and throughout tribal communities in Alaska.

How can the company deliver service over a network threatened with legislative obliteration?  LightSquared’s donation to Native Americans will rely on the company’s satellite network, which has not been deemed an interference generator by opponents.

Satellite telephony has proved to be obscenely expensive and of limited interest outside of military, shipping, and forest service applications.  At rates averaging up to $5 a minute or more, keeping conversations short is key to avoid bill shock.  Such technology is completely out of reach for most tribal communities, who are among the most income-challenged of all North Americans.  The contribution may buy the venture some goodwill on Capitol Hill, where it is sorely needed as skepticism over the company’s 4G service, to be operated on frequencies adjacent to GPS satellites, has reached an all-time-high.

LightSquared is learning the time-tested ways of Washington, where substance and common sense often take a back seat to political posturing, special interest politics, and campaign contributions.

Congress Moves to Kill LightSquared Approval: Interference Threat Too Great to Ignore

Phillip Dampier June 27, 2011 Competition, LightSquared, Public Policy & Gov't, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Congress Moves to Kill LightSquared Approval: Interference Threat Too Great to Ignore

New language in a spending bill likely to pass would prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from spending any of its budget contemplating approval of LightSquared’s application to deliver a national 4G wireless network over frequencies detractors claim would hamper or block use of GPS signals.

The language voted on in the House Appropriations Committee was approved by members of both political parties on a voice vote — another sign Congress is serious about stopping any provider from interfering with GPS technology.  A combination of concerns from the U.S. military, civil aviation, law enforcement, and private industry got a full hearing in Washington last Thursday, as GPS users complained of grave risks LightSquared could cause to aircraft in flight and the general defense of the country.

Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Aviation, was concerned GPS interference might even cause an in-flight emergency. “In aviation, there’s no room for error,” Petri said.

Petri

Last week, just prior to the hearing, LightSquared announced its intent to move the service further away from the GPS band, but industry groups remain resolute the proposed changes would be incremental and still pose an interference problem.

Congress’ vote would seem to indicate they agree, putting the entire LightSquared project in jeopardy.

This week, new questions are also being raised about the management of LightSquared.  Critics charge the company knew about the interference issue years ago, and did little or nothing to mitigate it. Some suspect the company was banking on a lobbying effort and pressure from the White House with an interest of expanding broadband to help push through an approval despite the interference threat.

John Byrne from IDC’s wireless and mobile infrastructure research group told the Washington Post LightSquared is now faced with proving interference will not be a problem before it will win approval.

“At this point I think you have to assume that the deployment is on hold until those concerns are addressed to the satisfaction of the FCC and all of the congressmen and senators that are on the FCC on this issue,” Byrne said.

LightSquared’s Last-Minute ‘Solution’ to GPS Interference Gets Skeptical Response from Some

Phillip Dampier June 22, 2011 LightSquared, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

LightSquared, feeling pressure after independent studies showed significant interference problems created by its wireless broadband network, suddenly announced a “solution” to the problem — one getting skeptical reviews from those critical of the project.

The would-be mobile broadband provider claims it will abandon a 10MHz band adjacent to that used by GPS, moving further down “the dial” in hopes of avoiding future interference problems.  Company officials hailed the move, claiming it solves the GPS interference problem except for certain high precision GPS receivers that could still suffer from the further distant LightSquared signals.

“This is a solution which ensures that tens of millions of GPS users won’t be affected by LightSquared’s launch,” said Sanjiv Ahuja, LightSquared chairman and CEO. “At the same time, this plan offers a clear path for LightSquared to move forward with the launch of a nationwide wireless network that will introduce world class broadband service to rural and underserved areas which still find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.’’

But LightSquared’s decision to remain in the same vicinity of low powered satellite signals has not impressed its critics.

Among the largest is Save Our GPS, a coalition of GPS users and manufacturers who fear LightSquared could ruin GPS service for millions of Americans.

“This latest gambit by LightSquared borders on the bizarre,” said Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of Trimble, a founding member of the Coalition. “Last week LightSquared unilaterally delayed filing of the study report that culminated months of intensive work to evaluate interference to GPS, because they purportedly needed two more weeks to analyze the results. LightSquared’s supposed solution is nothing but a ‘Hail Mary’ move.  Confining its operation to the lower MSS band still interferes with many critical GPS receivers in addition to the precision receivers that even LightSquared concedes will be affected.”

Kirkland said it’s time for LightSquared to find an entirely different set of frequencies for its service, well away from GPS.

As LightSquared’s challenges continue, the one potential bright spot may be its agreement with Sprint Nextel allowing Sprint to resell LightSquared’s 4G network.  The agreement includes sharing upgrade and equipment expenses, but could be extended to include spectrum resources owned or controlled by Sprint.

LightSquared Fail? America’s Newest Wireless Competitor Could Wipe Out Your GPS

The Rochester, Minn. Amateur Radio Club spent months documenting potential interference from another problem technology: Broadband Over Power Lines.

Back in 2004, the Federal Communications Commission was looking for ways to expand broadband competition.  Borrowing from a mild success story in Europe, the Washington regulator, with the help of a well-financed lobbying campaign, approved new technology that would deliver broadband service over power lines, known as BPL.  The promises were great — fast access over an extensive, already-wired network that reached virtually every home in the country.  Glossy brochures promising a new generation of broadband and new competition were sent to every member of Congress.  Dollar-a-holler groups like the New Millennium Research Council produced “research reports” claiming the technology would advent a broadband revolution.  Some investors used to sleepy returns from utility companies dreamed about the promise of a rich new revenue stream pitching broadband service.

But there was a slight problem.  The technology worked better on paper than it did in real life.  Even more importantly, it carried more baggage than USAir.  Delivering wideband broadband signals over unshielded power cables never designed to carry radio frequencies meant interference — a lot of it, to any radio band the broadband signal occupied.  That meant a horrible listening experience on AM, and practically no listening at all over the shortwave bands, designated for military communications, international broadcasters, and the amateur radio community.

The FCC approved and supported the technology anyway, promising filters and other mitigation for those impacted by interference — a notion scoffed at by the American Radio Relay League, a group representing amateur radio operators.

So why don’t we have that third choice for broadband today?  BPL technology buried itself as its woeful performance could never match the high-flying marketing promises found in the brochure.

Fast forward to 2011 and manufacturers of satellite navigation devices, popularly known as GPS units, are terrified America is about to embark on another dreadful mistake.

LightSquared, a new entrant in the telecommunications marketplace, is constructing a nationwide 4G wireless broadband network with traditional ground-based antenna towers supplemented with a satellite system providing coverage in rural areas.  The company’s new network will occupy a frequency band just adjacent to that used by global positioning satellites, the backbone of the GPS system that some LightSquared critics contend will be crippled if the company’s 4G network is ever switched on.

LightSquared released this promotional video talking up their future network.  (2 minutes)

Early interference tests conducted by a federal working group show those critics may be right.  Because satellite signals are so weak, manufacturers like Tom-Tom and Garmin must create highly sensitive GPS receivers to handle the faint signals.  Because these units are not always selective enough to reject adjacent signal interference, a neighboring transmitter delivering a much more powerful signal — such as that from LightSquared — could overwhelm them.

Independent testing found serious interference problems even for professional grade GPS units used by civil aviation, ships, and emergency responders.  A sampling:

  • GM’s OnStar system received significant interference, making it difficult to identify the location of crashed vehicles and disrupting turn-by-turn directions and other navigation services;
  • In recent tests in New Mexico, LightSquared caused GPS receivers used by nearby police, fire and ambulance crews to lose reception;
  • John Deere’s agricultural equipment incorporating GPS technology failed to receive signals during the LightSquared testing;
  • Both the Coast Guard and NASA reported significant interference to their GPS receivers;
  • The Federal Aviation Administration reports their GPS receivers completely failed while the tests were conducted.

The red box identifies the spectrum assigned to LightSquared. Its immediate neighbors are faint signals from communications satellites. (click to enlarge)

With complaints like that coming after a small-scale test, the thought of 40,000 ground-based LightSquared towers obliterating the nation’s access to GPS is more than just a little concerning to users and manufacturers.

“LightSquared’s network could cause devastating interference to all different kinds of GPS receivers,” Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of Trimble Navigation Ltd., told the Washington Post.  Trimble manufactures GPS devices.

The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics advised the FAA its own independent tests of the LightSquared system found the consequences of turning this 4G wireless service on would be cataclysmic for GPS signals, making most satellite navigation equipment completely useless in most major metropolitan areas.

LightSquared executive vice president Jeffrey Carlisle told the Post he remained confident that the two systems could co-exist, even admitting he expected to find interference issues.  Carlisle says the real question is how to mitigate it.

This is not the first time interference issues have come before the FCC.  Nearby spectrum neighbors often don’t get along, especially when one licensed user relies on weak signals from space and the other utilizes more powerful ground-based transmitters.  The Commission has even fielded complaints over garage door openers interfering with certain military radios.

LightSquared’s network concept isn’t by itself the problem.  XM Radio manages to operate its mix of satellite-delivered radio and 900 ground-based repeater transmitters without creating interference for other users.

Deere Companies produced this diagram showing a comparison of the respective power levels of LightSquared signals vs. satellite navigation signals.

Unfortunately for LightSquared, it has several problems to contend with, the most significant being its “zoning problem.”  The souped-up 4G network is simply not in character for the spectrum neighborhood it calls home.  It’s a McMansion being built in a neighborhood of cottages.  LightSquared’s neighbors are low powered satellite signals in the 1-2Ghz range, including those from the satellites which provide GPS.  In certain cases, receiver equipment can be designed to reject the adjacent interference a network like LightSquared could create, but with millions of existing GPS units already in use, that may prove impractical.

LightSquared has tried to rope off its channel space as much as possible, trading spectrum with other nearby users to create a nearly contiguous 20Mhz slice it can dedicate to its signals, in hopes of reducing interference.  But the recent tests suggest this may not be enough.  General Motors suggested LightSquared needs to find a better neighborhood — one more suited to the kind of signal it wants to offer.  That could come from a spectrum trade or a frequency reallocation by the FCC.

The FCC is taking a “wait and see” approach so far, claiming further tests are needed.  But the agency earlier pledged it would not allow LightSquared to operate its network if it created major interference problems for other spectrum users.  Some GPS manufacturers think that commitment is too vague, because “major interference” is in the eye of the beholder.

Those concerns may be warranted, considering the FCC earlier found its way clear to ignore the documented interference Broadband Over Power Lines created over both the AM and shortwave radio dial.  Even after a blizzard of lobbying and campaign contributions won support for BPL in Washington, the ultimately inferior product that resulted couldn’t win the support of the group that ultimately mattered most — paying customers.

Sanjiv Ahuja, chief executive officer of LightSquared, talks about the company’s efforts to build a wireless broadband network as other spectrum users challenge the company’s potential to create interference.  (7 minutes)

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