Heck of a LightSquared Week

What Does All This News Hold for You?

Editorial by Gavin Schrock, PLS

When the news comes this fast, sometimes all we can do is hang on and hope for the best. We’ve become so accustomed to the onslaught of LightSquared related news that it has become a sort of irrelevant background noise, and the various sides posturing and quibbling get tuned out like the “WaaWaaWaa” of Linus’s teacher in the old Peanuts comic strip. But this past week, and the next few day, will see some mighty big meaty juicy news related to the LightSquared issue that provide insights into the eventual outcome—however long that may take.

Let’s begin with the January 27th call for comments on the LightSquared petition to the FCC for a declaratory ruling that GPS is not entitled to protections specific to their satellite spectrum, which was characterized by the FCC as a standard procedure. As reported by Communications Daily, FCC Chairman Genachowski commented February 2nd that we “shouldn't read anything into the release” and that the “notice was put out because it's required under our rules as a routine matter," he said. "It doesn't affect the timing of when we can decide other matters."

What does this mean? It is widely interpreted as distancing the matter of the original waiver from the latest petition; he went on to repeat, as he has every time the question is posed that, “we're not going to do anything that causes harmful interference." But, public calls for comment to the FCC represent one of the few options end-users have in the face of the well-funded opposing armies of lawyers and lobbyists. Will the petition change the outcome of the controversy? Not likely in light of other news, but it was filed to set the stage for further possible actions.

Then the news on February 3rd that LightSquared’s major investor, Harbinger Capital, lost nearly half of its value in 2011. No surprise considering that so many eggs were placed in the LightSquared basket and the uncertainty of outcome. There are voices rising that are sympathetic to the fate of LightSquared. After all, they were willing to invest a lot of money in providing more bandwidth to a hungry public. Supporters contend that they may have been victim not only of some poor advice, poor planning, and an underestimation of the potential push-back, but primarily from a lack of clarity in spectral policy— these issues should have been resolved long before the original waiver had been granted. And those arguable flaws in policy have been, justly or unjustly, the driver of these most recent LightSquared moves.

The next big news, and perhaps the most telling, was the January 7th announcement of congressional approval for FAA spending on the NextGen navigation systems, with GPS playing a major role. NextGen is reputed to not only improve air traffic safety but also free aircraft from restrictive paths that use a lot of extra fuel. For all of the tired quibbling over who squats on whose spectrum it looks like the issues of public safety and security trump all other considerations with regards to current GPS methods and uses—GPS looks more and more like a sleeping giant that many may wish they had never awoken, now almost immutable, that could take many years to calm. A congressional hearing Feb 8th was held on the very questions of aviation safety, GPS, and interference. The hearing has reiterated and clarified these concerns and addressed the allegations of bogus and skewed testing.

A press conference convened on fairly short notice on Feb 7th had LightSquared all but conceding that the current waiver and conditions to resolve interference issues may not be met without major changes to policy, changes that may come only after a long and protracted process and an even longer period of transition for the positioning community to adopt and implement. While a handful of promising prototypes of solutions to deal with possible interference of LightSquared transmissions in the lower 10MHz of contested spectrum have surfaced, at this time these would appear to solve the issue for only a select range of receivers. There are still hundreds of thousands of fielded units that await solutions.
Development of solutions is noble, but when it’s used as a tool to try to hasten the coming of the hazardous interference before all solutions are in place and tested, many who will foot the bill view this as “ignoble.” And there is the issue of the upper 10MHz (back on the table); if asked, developers will tell you that it is possible but that they are “working on it.” When it comes to aviation safety and hurtling airborne cans of people, “working on it” does not fly (literally). More time needed.

Engineering, policy, and time are given a nod in the latest FCC filing by LightSquared announced in the same press conference on the 7th. This latest filing asks the FCC to begin a process to impose receiver standards on GPS with regards to adjacent spectrum. If adopted, this would be unprecedented as the FCC does not (with a few obscure exceptions) have the authority to regulate receivers, only transmitters. And most certainly the FCC would not have the authority to impose standards on other agencies’ equipment. The filing poses more questions that could not possibly be solved without months or years of deliberations, and likely new legislation would need to be enacted to empower the FCC to do so—not to mention a practical and equitable transition period requirement.

Unless there are some completely delusional assumptions behind it, the latest filing seems to be an admission that there will be no immediate resolutions. Could LightSquared still retain value from the spectrum? Yes, as some have said all along; it could be utilized for satellite services as it currently is, and maybe with a very modest ancillary terrestrial component to fill in where satellite does not work well. And then there’s that great big valuable prize on the distant horizon of expanded terrestrial—but only if they are patient enough to wait out the decade or more before all of the policy issues are sorted out to claim that prize.

The next big news may come as early as early as Feb 10th, or shortly thereafter. The NTIA is expected to make their recommendations to the FCC concerning the waiver; these findings are to be based in part on that fairly damning letter from the PNT EXCOM reflecting on recent tests and recommendations from nine federal agencies. It is expected that the NTIA may give a nod to opening the conversation on receiver recommendations and maybe a very long transition period.

Then we will await the final word from the FCC. Would they break ranks with the NTIA, PNT, FAA, DoD, and other agencies? Highly unlikely. If recommended, what would a long transition mean to the end users, and surveying end users in particular? It is very likely that the deliberations over the civil aviation considerations alone would take years, and with an even longer expected transition period (if negotiated at all) it would be 2020 at the very-gosh-darn-unlikely-earliest, and perhaps much longer than the expected life of currently fielded gear. In short, it looks like efforts are falling flat to try to convince us that this is our fault, that or our gear is bad, or poorly designed, or we need to replace it right away – at least not for a great many years.

No one knows for sure, but keep your eyes and ears open for more news and clarity soon; we’ll keep you posted.

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