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Niklas Zennstrom's FreedomPop has signed a mind-boggling deal with LightSquared to provide free broadband to everyone in America.

FreedomPop only exists as a landing page where one can register an interest in having free mobile broadband, and if it weren't for the involvement of one of Skype's founders it could easily be mistaken for a scam - it sounds too good to be true.

Skype successfully provides free phone calls, but only by piggybacking on someone else's infrastructure. Doing the same thing with free mobile internet access will be a challenge, even with the support of satellite broadband outfit LightSquared.

"FreedomPop represents the kind of disruptive service model that LightSquared is enabling," says LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja, who was drafted into the company from Orange.

FreedomPop's goal sounds far fetched, but so did LightSquared for the first year. The wannabe national operator was set up by a hedge fund to build a mobile network using frequencies reserved for satellite use, on which no base stations or mobile handsets could operate, with less than a third of the cash required to fund its unprecedented rollout even based on its own estimates.

But the first of those base stations went live yesterday. Not yet in the frequencies owned by LightSquared but operating in Sprint's bands (thanks to the cooperative agreement between the pair) with a software switch awaiting FCC approval for LightSquared to start transmitting.

GPS and LightSquared - best friends or neighbours from hell?

That approval is dependent on LightSquared demonstrating it can operate in at least one of the bands it owns without knocking out local GPS reception. GPS operates in a nearby band, and GPS devices receive very broadly for reasons of price and precision. For precision kit LightSquared today demonstrated filters which will (the company claims) stop the interference once fitted, or incorporated, into GPS equipment.

That solves the problem for precision, but not for price as loads of GPS receivers pick up neighbouring bands through the use of cheap components, which LightSquared reckons is not its problem.

LightSquared has already said it won't use its upper band, which is right next to GPS, for a few years at least, and that interference from the lower band should be next to non-existent, but that's for the FCC to decide.

Meanwhile the company has been busy signing deals with anyone who can hold a pen, both to demonstrate confidence in the concept and because LightSquared's business plan calls for the network to handle 40 million connections within five years. Giving away connectivity might be a way to achieve those numbers, but making it commercially viable could be next to impossible.

The LightSquared plan is ambitious to say the least, but the company is well on the way to achieving it. FreedomPop's plan is off the chart, and will need a lot more than an innovative partner to give away internet access to all - unless Zennstrom is going to pull something really remarkable out of the hat, it's very hard to see how it can happen. ®

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