LightSquared, FCC Rebuttals Distort Record

June 14, 2011  - By

A claim frequently made by LightSquared spokesperson Jeff Carlisle, and recently by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, that the GPS industry knew long ago about LightSquared’s plan for powerful terrestrial transmitters, would be a telling point — if it were true. But it is not. The verifiable fact is that the GPS industry knew about and agreed to a plan by a previous version of the company, for a different purpose, with a different business concept, and employing a completely different technological approach, one that would not have harmed GPS transmissions and disabled GPS users the way the current plan does. Calling the 2010 LightSquared plan the same as the 2003 Motient plan is running a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The GPS industry worked cooperatively with previous incarnations of LightSquared, known variously as Motient, Mobile Satellite Ventures Subsidiary LLC, and SkyTerra, to facilitate the provision of ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) service: a terrestrial service authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as an ancillary component of an integrated satellite offering.

[Definition of ancillary: Providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, institution, industry, or system.]

The Record. Since at least 2003, the FCC has contemplated terrestrial operations as an ancillary supplement to a primarily satellite-based service. And since 2003, the GPS industry has been aware of this, and cooperated with it. The plan involved no foreseeable harm to the GPS signal or millions of GPS users. In fact, its very design to protect its own satellite signals also protected GPS signals from interference.

LightSquared’s predecessors — Motient, MSV, and SkyTerra, in succession — presented a series of technical proposals in limited proceedings, and the FCC accepted a series of incremental modifications of its technical rules, all against the backdrop of the fundamental requirement: that the terrestrial operations would be ancillary to and fully integrated with a primary satellite service. The GPS community evaluated changes in the technical rules in this context and did its best to cooperate in technical modifications that would apply to terrestrial operations subject to these fundamental constraints.

More to the point, those predecessor companies had to protect their own primary satellite operations from interference. The protection that their own satellite operations required was also sufficient — at that time — to protect GPS receivers. Because of these companies’ self-interest in protecting their own satellite signals in-band, the GPS industry focused its efforts on limiting out-of-band emissions from the anticipated ATC operations to GPS reception in the adjacent spectrum band, as evidenced by the agreements reached between the parties involved.

Ring in the New. The present situation is completely different. The current owners of LightSquared — entities affiliated with the New York hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners — took over SkyTerra in March 2010.  That’s when everything changed.  A new senior management team, a new business plan, and a new technological implementation: 40,000 powerful terrestrial transmitters adjacent to the L1 band in which GPS operates. Nothing previously seen by the FCC or the GPS industry even hinted at this approach.

LightSquared now proposes an extensive deployment of terrestrial transmitters, operating independently of its satellite offering, which will create interference to GPS far beyond what was contemplated by prior FCC policy and applicable rules. GPS operators understood and agreed that satellite operators in the Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) band could deploy terrestrial service on an ancillary basis to complement satellite-based services in areas where satellite reception was weak. But there was never any agreement to, nor awareness of, the kind of dense and very powerful terrestrial network that LightSquared now seeks to install.

LightSquared spokesperson Carlisle paints his organization as involved in prior communication to and negotiations with the GPS community in connection with the ATC rules. This disguises an essential point. That was a different organization, with a different ownership and leadership, a different business plan, and a different technology to back it up.

Carlisle himself says so in a November, 2010 update letter to the FCC, which is when the rumbling really began.

“In the six years since LightSquared’s [initial terrestrial] application was granted, control of the company has been transferred and its business plans have evolved.”

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski picked up the ball in a recent letter replying to Senator Charles Grassley’s concerns about LightSquared interference. “It should be no surprise to anyone involved in the LightSquared matter that the company was planning for some time to deploy a major terrestrial network in the spectrum adjacent to GPS.”

If an untruth is repeated enough times in enough different places, it begins to pass itself off as the truth.

Two to Ponder. The evolution of LightSquared’s business model involves two key elements, both of them at odds with established FCC policy, not to mention GPS viability — and thus not reasonably anticipatable by anyone.

First, LightSquared’s proposed terrestrial broadband operations cannot be described as ancillary to the primary purpose for which its predecessors, Motient, MSV, and SkyTerra, received their spectrum and licenses — that is, to provide a service that was primarily a mobile satellite service.

Second, a requirement for the ATC service in the MSS band was that any terrestrial service be integrated with the satellite service. LightSquared’s new business model contemplates no meaningful integration of terrestrial service with satellite service.

The deviations from established policy and rules required to accommodate LightSquared’s new business model were not mere technicalities. They represent a fundamental change to a complex and interrelated set of rules and policies that were carefully designed to protect GPS users from interference.

On Its Head. The November 2010 Lightsquared letter to the FCC described a new business model that turns the original concept on its head. LightSquared for the first time revealed plans to build a “nationwide network of 40,000 terrestrial base stations,” and stated that “the capacity of its fully deployed terrestrial network across all base stations will be tens of thousands of times the capacity of either of [its] satellites.”

Under the only combined satellite/terrestrial service plan described in the letter, an end user would be provided with basic usage (that is, usage before additional charges apply) of one gigabyte of terrestrial wireless broadband usage but only 500 kilobytes of satellite date usage, less than what is needed to send a single email in many cases.

It appears that the purpose of Lightsquared’s satellite service is, now, to provide ancillary service in remote areas not covered by the ubiquitous primary terrestrial network, or in the event that the terrestrial network is destroyed — exactly the opposite of what the FCC authorized and the GPS industry had understood and agreed to.

In 2003, the FCC stated that: “We will authorize MSS ATC subject to conditions that ensure that the added terrestrial component remains ancillary to the principal MSS offering. We do not intend, nor will we permit, the terrestrial component to become a stand-alone service.”

LightSquared now claims, and at least one FCC commissioner wants Congress to believe, that the GPS industry should have anticipated that what was bedrock when the FCC adopted its ATC rules would become quicksand by 2011. But there is no language in prior Commission orders that might have put the GPS community on clear notice that the rules of the game were likely to be changed in such a fundamental way.

The Distortion. LightSquared has mischaracterized the GPS community’s earlier cooperation as permission to extend the technical rules, without further consideration, to the fundamentally different, new and far more threatening mode of operation now proposed by its 2010 re-incarnation.

When the FCC first authorized ATC, it made it clear that in the event that services in bands adjacent to ATC operations, like GPS, suffered harmful interference, it would be the responsibility of the ATC operator, not the GPS provider, to cure that interference. If LightSquared cannot demonstrate that it will not cause – or that it alone will ameliorate – harmful interference to GPS operations, it must not be permitted to initiate service.

A cursory examination of Carlisle’s and Genachowski’s backgrounds reveals nothing pertaining to engineering or technical knowledge. Both are lawyers. Such professional experience has proven to go far in Washington D.C., of course. That and a line of talk.

Interestingly, Carlisle served as deputy chief and then chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau from 2001 to 2005 — the period during which the earlier, less harmful ATC agreement was reached.  Carlisle managed the development of FCC policies on broadband and competitive entry into the local exchange market, and was the architect of FCC policies on bankruptcy of common carriers.

Genachowski has a long-term and reportedly close relationship with President Obama, who appointed him to the FCC chairmanship.  His background as a Supreme Court law clerk has led some to speculate that he may play a strong role in determining legal strategy on FCC court cases. His official bio states that “Prior to his FCC appointment, Genachowski spent more than a decade working in the technology and media industries as an executive, investor, and board member.”

The GPS industry is amply on record as supporting the goal of ensuring that all Americans have access to broadband services, and President Obama’s goal to make more spectrum available for wireless broadband operations. However, pursuit of those goals cannot jeopardize the many critical functions performed by GPS in the national economy, security, or defense, and the overall U.S. infrastructure.

About the Author:

Alan Cameron is editor-in-chief and publisher of GPS World magazine, where he has worked since 2000. He also writes the monthly GNSS Design & Test e-Newsletter and the Wide Awake blog.

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