Sprint-LightSquared deal puts off network FAA warns could kill 800

GPS interference could interrupt plans for FAA upgrade and lives it may save

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If you or your company use Sprint for your cell-phone and mobile-everything connectivity, things are looking up. Or, if not up, at least it looks as if they might get more exciting.

In a deal announced yesterday, Sprint agreed that, for the next 15 years, it would sell a potential rival capacity on its wireless and LTE networks.

Under the deal, gigantic, controversial startup LightSquared will pay Sprint $9 billion for access to Sprint networks LightSquared can resell to its own customers.

Sprint needs the money because it made an early bet on WiMax, which is a fine technology that could have been successful as championed by an 800-pound gorilla like Sprint. WiMax is not the 4G cellular networking protocol chosen by Verizon, however, the carrier so large that it creates a huge depression in the fabric of the cellular networking universe, like a fat man stepping onto a trampoline occupied only by children. When Verizon bounces, the other carriers fall down and roll toward wherever it chooses to be, and just hope it doesn't come down on their heads.

WiMax still exists, and is even expanding here and there; Sprint still supports it, at least for now. But LTE, not WiMax, is the commercial cellular networking protocol of the future, so Sprint has some catching up to do.

LightSquared shouldn't have to buy capacity from Sprint, of course. It has its own 3G and 4G LTE technology it has been developing and a network it has been expanding for three years.

LightSquared also has as many hundreds of millions to spend on its network as investors can throw at it, despite its legal and theoretical technical problems.

The one slight problem is that, when it bought a chunk wireless spectrum on which to broadcast its cellular service, LightSquared got one whose upper registers are a little too close to the radio frequencies used by GPS satellites and receivers for the FAA to be completely comfortable with the result.

A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report dated July 12 but kept secret until it was leaked to the press yesterday (PDF), predicted interference from LightSquared's LTE network could cost the FAA $70 billion in upgrades to the GPS network used for navigation by commercial airlines.

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