Credit: AEB

MUNICH — LightSquared, the startup satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband firm that already has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its system, on March 3 began a series of meetings with government and industry officials representing the U.S. GPS navigation system to answer what for both sides is a multibillion-dollar question: Can LightSquared’s use of L-band frequencies near GPS’s operating spectrum be tailored so that it does not wipe out GPS signals for users anywhere near LightSquared’s terrestrial towers?

The Technical Working Group formed to decide the issue has until June 15 to deliver an answer to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which in late January gave Reston, Va.-based LightSquared a conditional waiver to its license that, for GPS backers, was the equivalent of a red flag.

The FCC, concerned that LightSquared might follow other wireless-broadband projects into bankruptcy, agreed to permit the company’s wholesale partners to sell terrestrial-only handsets to broaden the appeal of the service. For some GPS advocates, broadening LightSquared’s appeal is the last thing they want.

As was made clear here March 1-3 during the Munich Satellite Navigation Summit, for many GPS advocates in government and industry, LightSquared has become a mortal threat to a system that now counts hundreds of millions of user terminals and has become indispensable for industrial applications including precision agriculture and commercial air traffic.

So quickly has LightSquared become a perceived danger to GPS users that Gérard Lachapelle of the University of Calgary’s Department of Geomatics Engineering, who moderated a panel of government and industry navigation experts, referred to it simply as “the L-word.”

Christopher J. Hegarty of the MITRE Corp., which has been tasked by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to look into the issue, said LightSquared’s terrestrial towers, with up to 15.8 kilowatts of power each, “could overload the front end” of GPS receivers. He said the most vulnerable GPS receivers are those used in high-precision functions that use wideband links.

Similar statements have been made, in writing, to the FCC, by manufacturers of GPS receivers and by government users, including the U.S. Department of Defense.

These officials say that LightSquared, and its predecessor company, called SkyTerra, had crafted an agreement with the GPS community several years ago to protect GPS signals while at the same time permitting LightSquared to function. But they say LightSquared’s most recent business plan calls for many more users of the terrestrial service, especially in urban areas, and that the stress of these millions of customers will force LightSquared to reach for the maximum amount of power available to it under its license. The result, they say, will overwhelm the relatively weak GPS signals.

During interviews here, government and industry officials said privately they understand the U.S. government’s desire to facilitate the introduction of at least one satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband service to assure that communications links are not shut down during a Hurricane Katrina-type natural disaster.

But they say this priority is running head-on into the equally important place accorded GPS, in which the U.S. government has already invested some $35 billion and continues to invest at a rate approaching $1 billion per year, according to U.S. Air Force estimates.

Perhaps because of the strong feelings on both sides of the issue, it took LightSquared and the GPS sector more than a month to decide on the membership and agenda of the Technical Working Group.

Key to the group’s work will be an assessment of LightSquared’s filter, a device the company says it will place on all 40,000 of its terrestrial towers to assure its signals do not disturb other wireless services, including GPS.

Jeffrey J. Carlisle, LightSquared’s executive vice president for regulatory and public policy, said the company has invested $9 million in the filter, has produced several production models and is ready to demonstrate its performance to Technical Working Group members “within a couple of weeks.”

In a March 4 interview, Carlisle said LightSquared, which has agreed to spend $20 million on the Technical Working Group’s work, including field tests of the filters, does not take the view that the GPS backers are off base. While the company, which is owned by New York hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners, believes some GPS advocates have exaggerated the problem, he said LightSquared is willing to let the Technical Working Group settle the issue over the next 13 weeks.

“There are going to be multiple tests at different sites going on,” Carlisle said, adding that LightSquared’s filter is beyond the prototype phase and is now ready for large-series production.

Carlisle nonetheless expressed surprise that the GPS sector would only recently view LightSquared as a problem. The company’s ambitions, he said, have been known for several years.

“It is costing us about $1 billion to put our two satellites into orbit,” Carlisle said. “Plus it cost several hundreds of millions for us to get the [L-band] spectrum we need. And we have spent somewhere around $250 million to $350 million building technology in the United States that never existed before. Added to all that is $7 billion or $8 billion to build and deploy the terrestrial base stations. Given all that investment, how many subscribers did everybody [in the GPS community] think we would need?”

Carlisle said LightSquared, which is under pressure to finance and deploy its system — it has committed to the FCC to reach 100 million Americans by the end of 2012 and 260 million by 2016 — believes that the Technical Working Group will be able to reach a conclusion by June 15. But he conceded that it would be challenging.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.