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FCC hangs up on 4G broadband biz LightSquared

Let the legal shenanigans begin

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The US regulator has issued a statement saying it plans to suspend the waiver under which LightSquared was planning to build its national 4G network, putting the kibosh on the whole plan.

The statement is in response to a letter from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) which recommended the waiver be suspended – saying that it remained unconvinced that LightSquared could ever coexist happily with GPS systems. LightSquared robustly refutes that conclusion, and had pinned its hopes on the FCC coming to a more sympathetic decision, but it has not turned out that way.

LightSquared has always contended that it is up to GPS device manufacturers to avoid interference from neighbouring users such as themselves. It has already (temporarily) abandoned one of the bands it owns, and has demonstrated cheap filters which it says the GPS industry could use, but the GPS crowd contends that they're too big to be allowed to fail, and that neighbouring frequencies should be restricted indefinitely to protect their users.

Both sides have indulged in a deluge of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Disinformation), not to mention political lobbying and the parading of celebrity supporters. Early test results demonstrating unacceptable interference were widely leaked, and are still being quoted by the GPS industry despite being discredited by LightSquared as inaccurate and misleading (the industry now refers to "press reports" of interference, thus covering themselves).

LightSquared, meanwhile, denied the problem existed, and then said it only existed in a tiny proportion of users. The company then offered to run its proposed LTE network at lower power, and only use one of the bands it owns (which is further from the GPS band) but always intended to ramp up both the power and fill the upper band when mitigation technologies were available.

LightSquared's brilliant plan was to use radio frequencies formerly reserved for satellite phones to build a ground-based network. The satellite phone business has repeatedly shown itself financially impossible, so the bands were considered almost worthless until LightSquared managed to get the FCC to change the rules. Satellite operators are allowed to run ground-based transmitters, to fill in gaps caused by shadows and push the signal into buildings, but LightSquared got permission to drop the satellite capability from the handsets entirely.

It was an audacious plan, and they would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling GPS users in the band next door, who reckon 40,000 new transmitters would muck up their location tech.

The plan itself is perfectly valid, and Dish Networks will likely go on to build such a network (the bands Dish owns are suitably distant from GPS, but it can use the same waiver), but that's not going to help those who invested in Harbinger Capital (the fund behind LightSquared) and it would be almost un-American for those investors to give up without a fight. ®

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