LightSquared's plan to share spectrum with weather balloons draws cheers, jeers

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LightSquared's latest proposal before the FCC to salvage its dreams for a wholesale LTE network has drawn a range of comments, many falling into predictable camps of opposition and support. However, it is unclear if or when the FCC will act on the plan. 

LightSquared wants to share spectrum that is currently set aside for weather balloons used by the federal government. In exchange, LightSquared said it would permanently relinquish its 10 MHz of spectrum that is directly adjacent to the frequencies used by GPS receivers. The FCC set an initial deadline for comments of Dec. 17 and a raft of them flooded in.

"Despite recent FCC approval for Dish Network's AWS-4 spectrum or the potential upcoming television incentive auctions, LightSquared remains the most immediate prospect for becoming a viable competitor in the mobile broadband space, particularly for underserved areas," wrote Thomas Lenard, president of the Technology Policy Institute think tank. "Most importantly, if LightSquared is unable to deploy its network, major economic and consumer benefits will be lost. LightSquared's proposed wireless broadband network will produce an estimated $12 billion in value to the economy and potentially 10 times that amount--$120 billion--in benefits to consumers."

However, the Coalition to Save our GPS, which comprises GPS device makers like Trimble and Garmin, restated its opposition to LightSquared's plans, arguing that any spectrum expansion "not come at the expense of critical GPS services" and that the FCC should carefully consider "the overall public interest, not simply the immediate exigencies surrounding the proposed business plan of a private party."

Earlier this fall LightSquared filed a new spectrum proposal that would combine the 5 MHz it uses for satellite service at 1670-1675 MHz with frequencies in the 1675-1680 MHz band, currently used by National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration weather balloons. The company would share the NOAA spectrum rather than gain exclusive rights to it.

Such an arrangement would give the company 10 MHz for downlink LTE traffic. The company would employ another pair of bands totaling 20 MHz--which it uses for satellite services now--for LTE traffic going upstream from users' mobile devices. The total 30 MHz of spectrum would be 10 MHz less than LightSquared had originally intended to use for its LTE network.

However, it is unclear if or when the FCC will act on the proposal. The commission is accepting reply comments on the matter until January. TMF Associates analyst Tim Farrar said that a big unknown is if NOAA will share its spectrum. "The thing that's notable is that we haven't seen any reaction yet from NOAA about their willingness to make this spectrum available," he told FierceWireless. "I think that will be discussed behind closed doors with [the National Telecommunications and Information Administration]."

Farrar pointed out that Congress ordered the FCC to auction 15 MHz of spectrum of somewhere between the 1675 MHz to 1710 MHz band, which could complicate LightSquared's plans.

LightSquared is licensed for MSS operation in portions of the 1525-1544 MHz and 1545-1559 MHz downlink bands and the 1626.5-1645.5 MHz and 1646.5-1660.5 MHz uplink bands. LightSquared's spectrum in the 1525-1559 MHz block sits below spectrum allocated for GPS. Most GPS devices are not designed to ignore out-of-band signals, such as those produced by LightSquared's proposed network, which led the FCC to cancel LightSquared's conditional waiver for terrestrial service earlier this year. LightSquared filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May.

For more:
- see this Technology Policy Institute filing (PDF)
- see this Coalition to Save Our GPS release

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