June 29, 2011, 9:37 PM — There's little disagreement about what a test report expected this week will say about LightSquared's proposed LTE network: It knocks out GPS on many devices. There's far less consensus about what causes the problem and what to do about it.
LightSquared plans to build a terrestrial LTE (Long-Term Evolution) network to supplement its satellite-based mobile data system across the U.S. But to use its radio spectrum for that purpose, the startup needs to resolve interference with GPS (Global Positioning System) devices that are designed to work on frequencies close to its own. In January, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ordered LightSquared to convene a joint working group with the GPS industry and test for possible conflicts.
The formal report on that testing was expected early Thursday. According to findings that were publicized in advance of the report, the report will show big problems: GPS unavailable to airline pilots, public safety workers, farmers, consumers and other users, over varying distances from LTE cell towers.
Along with that report, LightSquared is expected to formally present the FCC with an alternative plan that it outlined in a press release last week. That plan calls for the company to set aside half of its cellular spectrum until the worst interference issues can be resolved. But the alarming results that have already been publicized have ignited opposition to the company's whole proposition.
Some GPS vendors and users say LightSquared should be kicked out of the MSS (Mobile Satellite Service) band where it now holds spectrum. Government officials are warning that an improved air traffic control system could be at risk. Lawmakers are proposing to block some funding for the FCC unless the agency ensures there is no interference. LightSquared itself has sponsored a report that says the problem was caused by GPS devices improperly using its frequencies, rather than the other way around.
LightSquared is playing directly into the U.S. government's ambitious plans for nationwide broadband access by using satellites to reach 100 percent of the nation's population. The SkyTerra-1 satellite, already in orbit, is one of the largest communications satellites ever built. Even better for the government's goals, LightSquared wants to link that relatively low-speed satellite network with fast LTE infrastructure in cities. The LTE network is intended to reach 92 percent of U.S. residents by 2015. The service has been scheduled to launch in the second half of this year.