This story was updated with reaction from the industry group Coalition to Save our GPS.
Beset by leaked reports that its planned network once again flunked Global Positioning System interference tests and with billions of dollars at stake, startup cellular carrier LightSquared took a bold step late Monday to win approval for operation of its network in its low frequency band by offering a multiagency federal working group veto power over operations in the upper portion of its spectrum.
But the proposal comes with a catch: the Federal Communications Commission must remove conditions that restrict LightSquared from commercial operation in the lower 10 MHz of spectrum tentatively approved in January.
This proposal would provide the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior and Homeland Security departments, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and NASA, an "explicit gatekeeping role" over use of the upper 10 MHz of its spectrum, LightSquared said in filing posted by FCC at 6:01 p.m. yesterday.
Jeff Carlisle, LightSquared's executive vice president for regulatory affairs and public policy, said in the filing that the proposal would give these agencies, which comprise the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Executive Committee chaired by the Defense and Commerce departments, the legal authority they now lack to direct spectrum allocation.
Tests this spring by LightSquared and the GPS industry in cooperation with multiple federal agencies, including Defense, Commerce, Transportation, FAA and NASA, revealed widespread receiver interference from the company's transmitters operated in the upper portion of its spectrum, the 1545-1555 MHz band, adjacent to the 1559-1610 MHz GPS band.
This June, LightSquared proposed to initially use only the lower portion of its spectrum, 1526-1536 MHz, further away from the GPS band in its initial roll out. The company said it ultimately intended to use both the lower and upper bands. This required another round of tests to determine GPS receiver interference in the lower band.
Bloomberg News reported last Friday that a draft report of those tests showed LightSquared transmitters operating in the lower band knocked out 75 percent of the GPS receivers under evaluation. LightSquared Chief Executive Officer Sanjiv Ahuja condemned the draft report leaked to Bloomberg as an "incomplete, selective and slanted analysis of the testing of general location/navigation devices" in a letter to top Commerce and Defense officials and in a press call yesterday.
Shortly after that call ended, LightSquared submitted its latest plan to FCC, which said the company will not operate in its upper bandwidth until it receives "explicit consent" from both the commission and the PNT executive committee. "At present, neither the PNT [executive committee] nor any of its constituent agencies has the legal authority to direct the disposition or any use of the L-band [the frequency band used by GPS and LightSquared]. This proposal changes that, and gives them an explicit gatekeeping role," Carlisle said in the FCC filing.
This offer, Carlisle said, is contingent on an "FCC order satisfactory to LightSquared that removes the condition relating to commercial launch of the company's terrestrial network on its lower 10-MHz downlink channel (1526-1536 MHz) and its entire uplink band [used by handsets] (1626.5-1645.5/1646.5-1660.5MHz)."
Carlisle did not specify the FCC condition that had to be removed in order to begin operation. FCC made it clear what those conditions were when it granted LightSquared a tentative waiver to begin operation Jan. 26. The company cannot begin operation until FCC, in consultation with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, "concludes that harmful interference concerns have been resolved and sends a letter to LightSquared stating that the [testing] process is complete."
LightSquared also backed off a proposal the company filed with FCC on Dec. 7 to quadruple the power on the ground of its network by 2017. Carlisle said in the filing yesterday the company now plans only to double its power by 2016, with no additional increases planned.
The Coalition to Save Our GPS, an industry group that represents receiver manufacturers and transportation companies that use GPS, said in a statement that it viewed LightSquared's proposal to allow the PNT executive committee veto power over use of the company's upper frequency band a constructive step.
"Unfortunately, LightSquared ties its agreement to do that to being given the green light to proceed full steam ahead in the lower 10 MHz, which is very premature," the coalition said, noting that the company has not yet demonstrated that its equipment does not cause interference to GPS receivers as required by FCC.