FCC defends granting conditional waiver to LightSquared

The FCC defended its decision to grant LightSquared a conditional waiver to allow terrestrial-only devices on its hybrid satellite-terrestrial network, with officials arguing that GPS interference concerns only cropped up late in the regulatory process.

According to prepared testimony FCC officials submitted to Congress, the FCC acted quickly to rectify the situation and see if GPS interference concerns could be mitigated once the issue was raised. However, according to the testimony given to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the GPS industry did not raise their concerns that GPS receivers would be overloaded with LightSquared's signals from its 1.6 GHz L-band spectrum until months before the waiver was granted. The FCC officials said that in the years leading up the decision to grant the waiver, the GPS industry never raised their concerns.

The FCC officials said the interference resulted from unfiltered or poorly filtered GPS legacy devices bleeding into the spectrum LightSquared had licensed, with the result being receiver overload. Therefore, they said, the interference was not from L-band users emitting signals into the GPS spectrum but rather from legacy GPS devices listening into the band next to them, effectively treating the GPS spectrum and the L-band spectrum as one band.

"The FCC would have investigated any complaints as soon as they were raised and attempted to mitigate at that stage," according to the testimony from Julius Knapp, chief of the agency's Office of Engineering and Technology, and Mindel De La Torre, who heads the FCC's International Bureau. "Nevertheless, when GPS receiver manufacturers and service providers ultimately informed the Commission of the potential for legacy device overload interference in the L-band, the Commission halted the licensee's proposed commercial service."

In the testimony, the FCC officials said that in the years ahead of the waiver being granted in January 2011, the GPS industry never raised the overload issue. It was not until September 2010 that the United States GPS Industry Council raised the issue, the FCC officials said, despite previous FCC actions removing the limit on the number of base stations that LightSquared and its predecessor companies could deploy. 

In February the FCC revoked the waiver for LightSquared to build a wholesale LTE network due to the GPS interference concerns related to the spectrum, a move that subsequently forced LightSquared into bankruptcy. LightSquared has disputed the studies that were used to show that GPS interference existed, and alleged that the tests were biased against the company. The conditional waiver to launch terrestrial service on the spectrum was always contingent on LightSquared resolving GPS interference concerns, but some Republicans have questioned how LightSquared got so far along in the regulatory process.

The GPS industry reacted strongly to the FCC testimony, arguing the FCC was distorting history and its own record. GPS executives argue that LightSquared's network was designed primarily to be a satellite network with an ancillary terrestrial component, and that the company wanted to turn the terrestrial component into its primary network, which required much more power and many more base stations.

"The suggestion that these interference issues should have been raised earlier by anyone ignores the FCC's own statements and the relevant history, including that as recently as March 2010, in the National Broadband Plan, the FCC confirmed that only limited use of MSS spectrum to 'fill in the gaps' in satellite service was permitted under existing rules, and that any changes would require further proceedings," Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of Trimble, said in a statement. "Once the FCC initiated these proceedings, the GPS industry promptly raised the interference issues that subsequent studies have overwhelmingly confirmed."

For more:
- see this FCC testimony (PDF)
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this Multichannel News article

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