LightSquared at odds with industry, government agencies over GPS interference


LightSquared, which had a booth at the March Satellite 2011 Convention in Washington, D.C., wants to sell broadband access. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

LightSquared’s plans have been ambitious from the start.

The Reston firm has proposed a coast-to-coast broadband network that could bring high-speed Internet to off-the-grid Americans. But unlike major service providers such as Verizon or AT&T, the company won’t hook them up itself.

Instead LightSquared aims to sell access to its network to mobile service providers that want to reach new markets and gadget makers that continue to produce a growing number of portable, data-enabled devices.

“By concentrating on doing one thing right . . . we enable many players in the ecosystem to incorporate that connectivity into a wide variety of value propositions and offers to end users,” said Frank Boulben, chief marketing officer.

Imagine, for instance, if Apple could sell the iPad with a mobile Internet connection directly to consumers without a Verizon or AT&T contract. That’s the kind of value proposition LightSquared envisions.

But those plans have been called into question before the Federal Communications Commission by a mounting number of skeptics who say the network would significantly interfere with global positioning technology used by other companies and the government.

The issue centers on spectrum. The swath of airwaves on which LightSquared plans to operate its network runs adjacent to those used by the GPS industry. GPS signals would be overpowered and drowned out as a result, opponents have said.

But executives at LightSquared are bullish that a solution can be reached. Last week the company offered to relocate the network on spectrum that’s farther away, a move that chief executive Sanjiv Ahuja claims would eliminate 99.5 percent of interference.

“This industry is blessed with very strong technical talent that has developed strategies to deal with interference all around the world,” he said. “We understand the interference concerns here and I have full confidence in LightSquared engineers as well as the GPS community’s engineers to be able to work through any of these questions as they arise.”

Ahuja said the firm counts 325 employees, about two-thirds of whom are located at its Reston headquarters. Harbinger Capital Partners, the hedge fund helmed by Philip Falcone, created the company after its purchase of Reston’s SkyTerra last year.

John Byrne heads the wireless and mobile infrastructure research group at IDC. He said the interference issue may continue to be a sticking point for LightSquared, even with the proposed solution.

“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,” he said.

LightSquared and the U.S. GPS Industry Council are expected to issue a technical report to the FCC later this week. The council’s executive director, F. Michael Swiek, declined to comment.

Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel at GPS firm Trimble, represents the Coalition to Save Our GPS, a group that opposes LightSquared’s project. He doubted the solution put forth by LightSquared last week and urged the FCC to be skeptical.

“Our view from the start is given how ubiquitous GPS is . . . there should be a very, very high hurdle before you let such a totally different use [of spectrum] in any proximity to that,” he said.

“It’s most definitely a wait and see” situation, said Byrne at IDC. “A lot depends on how that technical report is received and whether this is a situation where there is such a spotlight on it that the FCC needs to go the extra mile to make sure their solution is actually a solution.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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