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The Spectrum Story

By Martin Harriman, Former Executive Vice President of Ecosystem Development and Satellite Business
July 25, 2011

In less than two decades, spectrum – the airwaves we use for wireless communication – has come under unprecedented demand.  In just the next four years, U.S. wireless data usage is expected to grow 4,000 percent. This country, like others around the world, just didn’t anticipate that hundreds of millions of people would be walking around with smart phones, tablets and laptops, and that those devices would be used for cruising the Internet, checking stock prices or watching TV shows in the back of a cab.

With this explosion of wireless devices and ever expanding possibilities for utilizing them, it should be no surprise that this nation faces a spectrum crunch. While the Internet may seem boundless, the amount of spectrum for wireless services is finite.  This means we need to do our best to use, and efficiently manage, every slice of this scarce resource.

So what is spectrum and why does it matter?  Spectrum is – and will continue to be – the key building block for developing a competitive environment for wireless broadband. Consisting of bands of wireless frequencies, each possessing unique capabilities, spectrum has become extremely valuable real estate, and careful consideration must be made to how it is used. Our nation’s spectrum is managed by two federal agencies, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the FCC. The FCC, in particular, is tasked with the role of handing out spectrum licenses and ensuring that licensees follow specific rules and conditions.

So how does LightSquared fit into this story?

At its core, LightSquared’s business plan is based on an eight-year effort to reorganize spectrum in a section of airwaves referred to as the L-band.  Until LightSquared came along, the L-band included numerous thin slices of airwaves that were scattered throughout the band in a way that effectively rendered them unusable in a terrestrial network. Working with other companies, LightSquared reorganized the L-band so that these thin slices were bundled together into blocks that were big enough to support a new nationwide wireless broadband service that can offer world class speeds even in the most remote regions of the U.S., regions  currently limited to dial-up service– at best.

But building a new network in a crowded environment is always going to be a challenge. In LightSquared’s case, it recently discovered that its initial launch plan would result in interference with commercial GPS devices. That’s because the frequencies that GPS uses and LightSquared’s frequencies are right next to each other on the L-band.

But let’s be clear, the interference is not the result of LightSquared’s signal bleeding in to the GPS frequencies. LightSquared has spent the last eight years investing in filters and other technologies to make sure its signals stayed within its assigned frequencies.  In contrast, the commercial GPS industry never took steps to ensure that it kept to its own assigned frequencies. In fact, the problem with commercial GPS devices stems from their use of spectrum assigned to LightSquared.  The commercial GPS industry is a little like a homeowner who builds his patio on a neighboring lot because he assumes nobody will ever move in and then gets upset when a construction crew shows up one morning and begins work on the new house next door.

Nevertheless, LightSquared believes it has come up with a solution that will immediately resolve disruption issues for 99.5 percent of all commercial GPS devices.

LightSquared’s solution is simple to understand.  Instead of using the slice of airwaves immediately neighboring GPS, it is moving to new frequencies which are farther away from GPS airwaves.  This resolves the issue for the vast majority of commercial GPS devices and allows us to proceed with our plan to cover at least 260 million Americans with wireless broadband by 2015.

LightSquared is also making a firm commitment to work with the industry to resolve the issue for the remaining GPS devices, which are mostly involved in the construction and agriculture industries.

It’s important to solve this issue for a variety of reasons. Of course, LightSquared wants to proceed with its business plan, but failing to work through a solvable problem with the GPS industry would rob this country of a huge new source of competition and innovation.   In an increasingly global and competitive environment, the United States, which ranks 15th in the world when it comes to broadband, can’t afford to waste such a precious resource.

LightSquared’s launch would create a new competitor in an increasingly consolidated wireless market and introduce world class connectivity to parts of rural America that  are still on the wrong side of the digital divide.  It would also create 15,000 jobs over the next five years as the network is built and maintained. In fact, the introduction of a new wireless competitor would unleash $120 billion in economic benefits, according to a study by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Brattle Group.

The commercial GPS industry often portrays the current situation as a stark choice between GPS and LightSquared. That’s simply not true.  LightSquared has a path forward that ensures the future of GPS and also provides Americans with a new wireless competitor, one that delivers world-class broadband speeds, whether you live in an urban apartment, a suburban cul-de-sac or a rural farmhouse.

Visit our Public Policy page to learn more about our GPS solution.

Martin Harriman is the former executive vice president of ecosystem development and satellite business.

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