LightSquared faces Congress, amends plan

Facing sharp criticism over GPS interference, the company has proposed more commitments to a solution

LightSquared's proposed 4G mobile network on satellite frequencies would hinder hurricane and tornado tracking, earthquake reporting and the prediction of floods and volcanic eruptions, federal officials told Congress on Thursday.

The company and its proposed hybrid satellite-LTE (Long-Term Evolution) network came under sometimes harsh questioning during a hearing before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, with some members calling for a compromise solution to the conflict between LightSquared and the GPS (Global Positioning System) industry.

Tests earlier this year showed that LightSquared's ground-based network would cause major interference with GPS in the upper part of the company's spectrum. Debate is now swirling around whether the network could operate in its lower frequencies without causing problems. At the hearing, a LightSquared executive pointed to an amendment that the company added to its proposal on Wednesday, which he called a sign of its continuing effort to solve the interference.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted a conditional waiver to LightSquared earlier this year that would make it easier for the company to deploy a commercially viable LTE network using spectrum intended primarily for satellites. Those frequencies are close to the ones used by GPS, leading to interference that GPS backers say would be devastating for many services.

That impact would extend to weather forecasting, including hurricane and tornado tracking, because the satellites and ground-based systems used for those purposes rely on GPS, said Mary Glackin, deputy under secretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey would have problems predicting floods, landslides and even volcanic eruptions because of equipment such as stream gauges that rely on GPS, according to David Applegate, associate director of natural hazards at that agency.

In addition to causing problems with the Federal Aviation Administration's next-generation air traffic control system, interference with GPS would probably affect emerging systems to prevent collisions in the rail system and highways, a representative of the Department of Transportation told the committee. An earlier FAA analysis reportedly had predicted nearly 800 additional deaths from air crashes if the network were built.

"Aviation use of GPS would be significantly compromised," said Peter Appel, administrator of the department's Research and Innovation Technology Administration.

Most of the witnesses and some lawmakers on the committee called for additional testing of LightSquared's proposal to use only the lower band of spectrum for now, which it submitted on June 30. LightSquared Executive Vice President Jeffrey Carlisle said about 130 products were tested in that band during a series of tests earlier this year.

However, LightSquared has now submitted an additional plan to the FCC to try to find a solution to the interference, Carlisle said. In the paper filed Wednesday, the company proposed committing itself to a certain level of broadcast power from its LTE towers, measured on the ground at various distances from each tower.

The company also proposed providing a stable satellite signal for GPS augmentation services, which high-precision GPS units use, at a different part of LightSquared's band.

"This is not a zero-sum game," Carlisle said, expressing confidence that a solution can be found to allow both GPS and LightSquared's network to operate. He estimated that only 500,000 to 750,000 high-precision GPS devices would be affected by an LTE network running in LightSquared's lower band. Nevertheless, he told lawmakers that his company planned to spend $14 billion over the next eight years to build and run the network and that interference was caused by problems with receivers that GPS vendors should have known about but never addressed.

However, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, pressed Carlisle on the fact that LightSquared got its spectrum license as a satellite company in 1989, before the FCC held spectrum auctions.

"My sympathies might be a little bit greater if I would have learned that your company had actually paid a great deal of money out of their pocket for the right to this to begin with," Rohrabacher said. "This was a publicly owned asset that was transferred ... to your company for nothing." Carlisle said the company had invested billions in satellites to use that spectrum and had invested $4 billion so far in its current plan.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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