Sanjiv Ahuja, Chairman and Chief Executive, Lightsquared

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Sanjiv Ahuja never imagined he would become embroiled in a political controversy when he took the reins of LightSquared, which is seeking to deploy a hybrid satellite-terrestrial broadband network covering North America.

But in July, experts determined after extensive testing that the terrestrial portion of LightSquared’s proposed L-band network, consisting of some 40,000 base stations, would cause unacceptable interference with GPS applications. Republican U.S. lawmakers have since sought to tie LightSquared’s donations to the Democratic Party to what they say has been the company’s favorable treatment at the hands of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulators. Company officials, including Ahuja, have also given substantial sums to the Republican Party.

The interference issue has been linked to a conditional FCC waiver the company received in January allowing it to offer a terrestrial-only version of its service. But Ahuja says offering phones that connect only through LightSquared’s base stations in no way changes how the network will operate.

LightSquared has nonetheless pledged to roll out its service at substantially reduced transmission-power levels and only in those FCC-allocated frequencies that are farthest away from the GPS band. Testing of that new operating mode is expected to be completed in November.

In the meantime, LightSquared, whose large SkyTerra-1 satellite was launched nearly a year ago and is serving customers, is working to fulfill an FCC mandate to reach 100 million U.S. customers with its ground-based network by the end of 2012 and 260 million by the end of 2015. The terrestrial 4G network, to be built by wireless carrier Sprint, features the most up-to-date telecom technologies that Ahuja says will, when coupled with LightSquared’s wholesale business model, dramatically reduce the cost of smartphone services.

Ahuja, an engineer by training with an extensive résumé in the wireless industry, spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.

 

Can LightSquared and GPS coexist?

It’s our absolute desire to live harmoniously with the GPS community. One of the points that gets missed in this process is that the GPS interference issue does not have anything to do with the kind of devices LightSquared has. It has to do with the kinds of receivers the GPS community has been building, knowing very well for almost a decade that the LightSquared network is going to come up. It is a faulty design point of GPS receivers that they look into the transmissions in our band; it’s why these receivers get impacted. So the objections that came about when we went for the waiver for terrestrial-only devices have no relevance to the devices.

 

So offering a terrestrial-only version of your service does not change the way your base stations operate?

Absolutely not. That is incorrect when they claim that the base stations will change their behavior one bit. It is the same base station transmitting at exactly the same rate. All we asked for was a change to the kind of devices we would support. We will continue supporting integrated devices; our request to the FCC was that we be able to support terrestrial-only devices as well. It had nothing to do with how we transmit. We actually had authorization from the FCC to transmit at 16 kilowatts and we have voluntarily reduced that to 1.6 kilowatts.

 

Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, told Congress in no uncertain terms Sept. 15 that LightSquared would cause unacceptable interference to critical military GPS applications. Your response?

I believe he was talking about our old spectrum plan. We have moved away from the GPS band even further. At that time, there had not been testing with the Defense Department equipment, so there was still work to be done with that frequency that we now intend to use. Interestingly, some people in the GPS community have said it would take a decade to solve that problem technically. It took us less than 10 weeks to announce a filter that essentially makes those GPS receivers resilient to the LightSquared signal.

 

Given that the GPS community has seized on the waiver to rally opposition, why not just drop plans to offer a terrestrial-only service?

We are looking at this waiver but we also have a very strong legal position. This is spectrum that was allocated to us in 1989; subsequent authorizations were given to this company and its predecessors in 2003 and 2005. In March 2010 this company was mandated by the FCC to pursue a very aggressive build-out. So we have very solid alternatives — one of those is to withdraw the waiver application.

 

Why not just do that and diffuse the opposition?

Because we know we are right and we know we have technically solved the problem. We know we can live harmoniously with the GPS devices.

 

Why do you suppose the opposition cropped up only in the last year or so?

I don’t think they believed that we would really build the network, because the company at that time did not have the wherewithal to be able to build the network, and now it does. And once they knew that we had raised capital and were raising capital, and that this company was really going to become real, they started paying attention to the issue and the best way to pay their attention is just bring totally disingenuous and erroneous facts.

 

Are you still paying Inmarsat to clear spectrum for your service?

We have not changed the fundamental nature of that deal.

 

Who’s paying for the current round of LightSquared testing?

We have made external laboratories available, at our expense, for the testing to be done.

 

What about installing the filters that LightSquared says solve the problem?

The critical thing is people have been manufacturing faulty devices. To fix them, the manufacturers have to pay for those. If you have equipment that does not work properly and if it gets impacted by a legitimate, authorized service when it operates, it is the responsibility of the person who makes those devices.

 

You say the LightSquared satellite phone has the same size and power requirements as a conventional smartphone. That being the case, what’s the argument for offering a terrestrial-only version of your service?

That was the demand we had from our customer base. We think satellite capability is an added value and our customers said, “Yes, it is an added value,” and we want to charge extra money from our customers.

 

Critics say LightSquared, contrary to the spirit of its FCC license, is a terrestrial wireless venture masquerading as a satellite operator. Your response?

We spent around $1 billion or so building our satellites. It’s a service we’ve offered to the government agencies for years. It covers America coast to coast — every square inch of this country is covered — and we’re spending a billion dollars. That shows our commitment to this.

 

But didn’t the promise to offer satellite connectivity enable LightSquared to secure spectrum that wireless companies had to pay for at auction?

Totally fallacious argument. The spectrum was given in 1989 when no spectrum was being auctioned in the United States.

 

Did you ever imagine that one of the biggest challenges you would face at LightSquared would be political?

Absolutely not. This is the biggest surprise and the biggest shock of my life. I’ve said time and time again that interference should be solved through good engineering. Let the engineers do engineering jobs.

 

How much financing have you raised?

We have over the last year or so raised over $2.5 billion over and above the money that was spent to acquire SkyTerra.

 

Are you still on track to meet the pledge you made to the FCC when Harbinger acquired SkyTerra and renamed it LightSquared?

With regard to our mandate to cover 260 million people with the terrestrial network by the end of 2015 — we’re confident we’ll get it done by the end 2014.

 

What about the mandate to cover 100 million customers by the end of 2012?

We are working very hard to ensure we don’t miss that.

 

It sounds like that might be a bit more of a challenge.

Of course. But we like technical challenges.

 

When might LightSquared need to boost the power levels of its transmissions above the 1.6-kilowatt level?

Our focus right now is to get the business going, start building the network, and start delivering service.

 

So you’re not prepared at this point to say when you might need to boost power levels assuming you’re cleared to operate?

No, I’m not, because my focus for the next four or five years is to be able to serve tens of millions of Americans at the kinds of prices we talked about and at the quality we have talked about.