LightSquared begins testing in Las Vegas, delays rollout plans as GPS interference fears mount

Lynnette LunaBeginning Monday, LightSquared will begin testing its planned LTE network in Las Vegas, but its full-blown commercial rollout has been delayed until early next year, according to a LightSquared executive quoted in Light Reading Mobile.

The Las Vegas Sun reports that a test will run after midnight for several hours for 10 days, and it appears to be the first lengthy real-world test to determine whether the operator's network interferes with GPS signals.

LightSquared's plan for a nationwide wholesale LTE network has come under fire because of the network's potential to interfere with GPS signals across the United States.

In January, LightSquared received conditional approval from the FCC to launch services using L-band satellite spectrum, which sits next to GPS spectrum. The company is required to work with the GPS sector to test existing GPS-enabled devices to determine what type of interference its transmissions might cause. The FCC also mandated that LightSquared and the U.S. Global Positioning System Industry Council (USGIC) establish a technical working group (TWG) to investigate the issues. A final report is due on June 15 of this year.

For this test, government agencies are warning that LightSquared's tests could possibly knock out GPS systems in the Las Vegas area. Late last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  issued an alert to pilots that "the GPS signal may be unreliable or unavailable" within a nearly 300-mile radius of Boulder City, where the test transmitter will be located, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. local time daily from Monday to May 27.

Outrage from GPS vendors and lawmakers and agencies in Washington has been building. GPS World posted a letter from Bill Range, program director for New Mexico's 911 system, that indicated law enforcement, fire services and EMS representatives tested LightSquared's network in a live sky testing environment on Holloman Air Force Base in April to determine if LightSquared's signals posed interference problems. Range warned that his department's tests "substantiate concerns that the LightSquared network will cause interference to GPS signals and jeopardize 911 and public safety nationwide."

Last week, Rep. Mike Turner (R.-Ohio) inserted a provision into the national defense authorization bill to require that the defense secretary notify Congress if a potential for widespread interference exists. Other lawmakers have criticized the FCC for approving LightSquared's application so quickly before the interference concerns were resolved. The Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation have also voiced their concerns.

Nevertheless, LightSquared executives have always maintained that the company's rollout schedule would not be delayed. However, during this week's LTE World Summit in Amsterdam, Martin Harriman, executive vice president of LightSquared, told Light Reading Mobile it now plans to launch commercial LTE services in early 2012 with field trials in Las Vegas, Baltimore and Phoenix happening in the third quarter of this year. LightSquared had previously said it would launch initial commercial markets by the end of this year with field trials happening before the third quarter.

Still, in a recent interview, Jeff Carlisle, executive vice president for regulatory affairs with LightSquared, spoke of LightSquared's confidence that any interference problems will be solvable and that it is contributing equipment and personnel to help the DOD, NASA and the FAA to conduct their own tests.

But analysts question what the cost might be, who will pay and how long will it take. Part of the reason the GPS vendor community has been so vocal on the issue is the fact that it doesn't want GPS users to be the ones who pay.

Tim Farrar, long-time satellite analyst and principal analyst with TMF Associates, believes a fix could cost as much as $1 billion per year. This figure takes into account increased costs for testing, safety approvals and retrofits of equipment.

In addition, LightSquared has a total of 59 MHz of spectrum, but it only has current access to the 1525-1559 MHz band-which is the band next to the GPS bands. The company is paying Inmarsat to transition parts of its spectrum so that LightSquared has a contiguous block of spectrum. LightSquared is expected to get access to two more 5 MHz channels no later than November 2012, depending on how fast Inmarsat can get out of the band. Two more 10 MHz channels are expected to become available for LightSquared's use by the end of 2013.

But the big question is: Will LightSquared be relegated to using just the lower portion of its spectrum-up to 1545 MHz-until a fix is found? If that's the case, it could very well put a damper on its ambitious plans.--Lynnette

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