July 1, 2011
Although LightSquared has raised a lot of money and its dynamic CEO Sanjiv Ahuja can wow audiences and investors alike, the company is facing some major challenges that may be too big to overcome.
By Linda Hardesty
Reston, Va.-based LightSquared is ramping up a unique terrestrial and satellite 4G LTE wireless network, using as much as 59 megahertz of terrestrial and L-band Ancillary Terrestrial Components (ATC) spectrum, mostly in the 1.6 GHz band.
LightSquared's plan is to lease its network on a wholesale basis to providers that want to sell retail wireless service. "We are telling our customers, 'We will never compete with you for the end user,'" says Frank Boulben, LightSquared executive vice president/chief marketing officer.
The company's network reportedly represents more than $14 billion of private investment during the next eight years. So far, the company has raised $265 million, with capital drawn both from existing investors and new financial players. Its business model got an added boost in June when LightSquared signed a 15-year agreement with Sprint Nextel to build and operate jointly the new wireless network in a deal valued at $20 billion, according to published reports. Not only will Sprint help deploy the network, it also will become a major customer of the company, similar to Sprint's relationship with WiMAX provider Clearwire.
LightSquared has made a commitment to have one satellite in the sky and one spare on the ground. "We've got to meet an FCC milestone by the end of 2012 to cover 100 million inhabitants and to cover 260 million inhabitants by the end of 2015," says Boulben.
The company is pursuing the zoning/permit process in the initial markets of Baltimore, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix. The permits will give it the right to deploy its base-station equipment, and to contract with tower companies and backhaul providers. The company expects its network ultimately to include 40,000 towers nationwide.
"We have started to work on the core network and testing equipment," says Boulben. "We will be live in the second half of this year, with full commercial launch at the beginning of 2012."
Or maybe not.
The Interference Problem
LightSquared hit a major snag having to do with Global Positioning System (GPS) interference. Soon after LightSquared received a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in January that gave it permission to use its spectrum for a wireless data network, companies invested in GPS began crying foul, warning LightSquared's wireless network would interfere with GPS technology.
For example, the Coalition to Save Our GPS claims LightSquared's 40,000 ground stations will cause widespread interference with GPS signals. On its Website, it writes: "LightSquared plans to transmit ground-based radio signals that would be 1 billion or more times more powerful as received on earth than GPS' low-powered satellite-based signals, potentially causing severe interference impacting millions of GPS receivers - including those used by the federal agencies, state and local governments, first responders, airlines, mariners, civil engineering, construction and surveying, agriculture, and everyday consumers in their cars and on handheld devices."
"We feel the FCC has taken an ‘approve-and-then-test road’ rather than a ‘test-before-you-prove’ road," says Ted Gartner, director of corporate communications at Garmin, one of the founding members of the Save Our GPS Coalition.
LightSquared formed a working group in February with the U.S. Global Positioning System Industry Council to test its system for GPS interference and to report the findings to the FCC. The testing was completed in mid-June, but LightSquared received an extension until July 1 to make its final report.
The company has acknowledged there are problems, issuing the following statement in June: "Early test results indicated that one of LightSquared’s 10-megahertz blocks of frequencies poses interference to many GPS receivers. This block happens to be the specific set of frequencies that LightSquared planned to use for the initial launch of its nationwide wireless broadband network."
LightSquared was quick to propose a solution to the GPS problem focused on using the lower block of its spectrum further away from GPS spectrum. It also reached an agreement with Inmarsat, the satellite company that controls the alternative block of spectrum in the L band, to continue the rollout of its wireless network on schedule.
In its statement, LightSquared said, "As part of this revised plan, LightSquared will modify its FCC license to reduce the maximum authorized power of its base-station transmitters by over 50 percent. This action will limit LightSquared to the power it was authorized to use in 2005, which will provide additional protection to GPS."
However, initial reaction to LightSquared's solution was grim. Jim Kirkland, vice president/general counsel at Trimble, a founding member of the Coalition to Save Our GPS, comments, “This latest gambit by LightSquared borders on the bizarre. LightSquared’s supposed solution is nothing but a ‘Hail Mary’ move. Confining its operation to the lower MSS band still interferes with many critical GPS receivers in addition to the precision receivers that even LightSquared concedes will be affected.”
He continues, “The government results submitted to date already prove this, and the study group report will also confirm this. It is time for LightSquared to move out of the MSS band.”
LightSquared's GPS problems have spawned regulatory problems as well. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) was among 33 senators who voiced concern to the FCC about GPS interference from LightSquared, and there is at least one big reason why he did so: GPS giant Garmin is headquartered in Olathe, Kan.
"One-third of the U.S. Senate from both parties joined me in sending a letter to the FCC asking that the full commission be involved in the process of making sure GPS is not compromised in any way. We’ve also requested that until this can be proven, the waiver for LightSquared be withdrawn," he wrote.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has said regulators "will not permit LightSquared to provide commercial service until it is clear that potential GPS interference concerns have been resolved."
After LightSquared offered its proposed solution in mid-June, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee unanimously passed an amendment that would halt the FCC from expending any funds related to the conditional waiver it granted to LightSquared until all concerns have been resolved about GPS interference.
What About Handsets?
And even if LightSquared solves its GPS and regulatory problems, the company may have another technical hurdle: the phones.
According to LightSquared's Boulben, "We entered into a strategy partnership with Qualcomm, putting satellite protocol in their chipset to manage both the terrestrial network and satellite into one chipset. You will be able to have an integrated device, a phone that will work as a satellite phone and terrestrial phone."
He says an integrated device would be valuable for public-safety workers who could use it as a regular cell phone but then switch to satellite mode in the event of a catastrophe. Also, there is a niche market for a phone that would work in really remote areas like Yellowstone National Park, for example.
"We're working with several manufacturers on the first smartphones to come to market in 2012," says Boulben.
But Earl Lum, principal at EJL Wireless Research, predicts devices will be a problem for LightSquared because it will be the only company operating in its frequency band, and devices need to roam on various networks.
"For Verizon to have a compliant phone and roam on the LightSquared network is going to cost them a lot," says Lum. "LightSquared's devices would have to meet all network requirements to be approved by Verizon. Who's going to make a one-off special just for them, even if they do partner with a phone manufacturer?"
Although LightSquared's promise of providing wireless broadband to remote parts of the country is appealing, it isn't the only option. Dallas-based NetAmerica Alliance is bringing together license holders in the 700 MHz band to participate in the buildout of a 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) network. More than 200 entities have acquired licenses in this spectrum, and the combined coverage area of those license holders includes 282 million people and almost the entire U.S. geography. NetAmerica's business plan is to partner with as many of those license holders as possible to build a national network. (For more, see How NetAmerica Is Stitching Together A U.S. LTE Network).
Linda Hardesty is associate editor at Communications Technology. Contact her at email@example.com.