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Dysfunction in DC--The Lightsquared Matter

What happens when the federal agency that is charged with regulating communications in the US butts heads with other agencies who oversee the likes of national defense, transportation, and aviation over issues of potentially devastating radio interference? Why, you get the FCC's current very strange stance on Lightsquared, a wannabe mobile broadband wholesaler.

I've long found the Federal Communications Commission to be a curious body. With a track record of commissioners coming from or going to high positions in industry, it's hard not to wonder about impartiality and whether commissioners are always acting completely in the interest of the public good. On occasion, the FCC comes across as a cheerleader for a specific technology or company, while at least partially turning blind eyes to strong technical evidence that counters the viability of some of the agency's pet initiatives.

Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) is a recent example, where the FCC wasn't very serious or consistent about enforcing its own regulations on interference that was disruptive to a range of licensed radio services. While the agency was out busting low-power community "pirate" radio stations, they often bordered on being a free advertising agency for BPL, regardless of the significant problems related to the technology in certain common configurations, as proven repeatedly by qualified experts. BPL as an initiative now is somewhere between death and life-support, having not survived its own flaws, despite the FCC's efforts to champion it.

Back to Lightsquared, and yet another weird vibe from the FCC. Lightsquared is an LTE broadband startup that employs technology that has been proven by a number of qualified groups to interfere with GPS signals. We're talking consumer, scientific, and military GPS applications at risk from Lightsquared's emissions. Typically, new technologies have to prove themselves to be non-problematic before the FCC will approve them going forward. Lightsquared however, was given conditional approval by the FCC's Democratic commissioners early on, with technical validation to follow. And here's how we got to the mess things are in today.

One prevailing version of the story (greatly simplified for brevity) has Phil Falcone, head of Lightsquared's owning company Harbinger Capitol, donating large amounts of money to the Democratic Party in advance of the FCC giving the go-ahead to Lightsquared in advance of the company actually proving its ability to be a radio good neighbor. But sooner or later the testing would come, and the results were not pretty. At least nine government agencies and the GPS industry have shown evidence that Lightsquared's approval would be devastating to a wide range of civil, consumer, and defense applications that that use the long-successful GPS system. The FCC (having little choice) has had to slow down the momentum of Lightsquared's unusually fast approval process in response, while the company attempts to address if and how they are going to get around the interference issues.

In the inevitable back-and –forth, Lightsquared has countered it's critics with a few well-publicized arguments. Talk of an inexpensive filter that could be added to high-end GPS receivers to mitigate the effect of Lightsquared's signals didn't go very far, as no real examples of the solution were offered and the strategy wouldn't help the millions of consumer-GPS-equipped products in use. Lightsquared has also claimed that the GPS system itself is problematic, and operating outside the tolerances of its approved frequency ranges. Whether this has been independently verified is unknown to me, but the GPS landscape is so entrenched at this point, Lightsquared's argument is almost moot.

And now the latest. Sprint is the biggest-named partner to sign on with Lightsquared, having done so early on. Sprint had originally given Lightsquared until February to get final FCC approval, which was derailed because of pushback by all of those who will feel the impact of a performance-compromised GPS system. Now, as Lightsquared (again with FCC cooperation) throws a Hail Mary pass by actually challenging whether GPS is legally entitled to protection from interference, Sprint has extended Lightsquared's approval deadline into mid-March. The FCC is gathering public comments on a fundamentally idiotic question, and we'll have to wait a few weeks to find out if this circus is finally over or whether this is just another turn along a very strange road paved by the FCC.

Anyone who follows the goings-on with spectrum-related issues and broadband growth in the US would agree that we have to have an eye to the future and look for new technologies. But if the FCC is going to be the agency that helps the country move forward, they are going to have to de-politicize their playbook, leave the technical decisions to experts, and start doing what's right for a change.