Friends in high places?

Posted in Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 12:02 pm by timfarrar

LightSquared has received significant backing from the highest levels of FCC as the company moves forward with deployment of its 4G LTE network, including several statements by FCC Chairman Genachowski in support of LightSquared’s public unveiling in July and its plans to donate 2000 handsets to the Indian Health Service, announced in September. Now we will have to wait and see whether the FCC will act to approve LightSquared’s recently updated ATC business plan, which met with significant opposition from cellular interests last week. These comments requested that this “novel re-interpretation of the Commission’s integrated service requirement” be deferred for consideration as part of the currently pending MSS rulemaking proceeding, which would likely delay any resolution of the request by many months.

Unfortunately it seems that LightSquared doesn’t have the friend in high places that really matters, as an act of God appears to have left the SkyTerra-1 satellite (which was launched on November 14, carrying “with it, the ambitions of one of the world’s richest hedge fund managers, Philip A. Falcone“) experiencing problems in deploying its 22m L-band antenna. While we probably won’t know until the end of this month whether or not the problem can be solved, if it can’t, then the satellite would very likely be unable to communicate with LightSquared’s handsets, and the company would be forced to launch the SkyTerra-2 satellite (which may or may not have been intended to remain a ground spare). Space News estimated last week that this could probably be done “within a year”, but that was before Sunday’s Proton rocket failure, which fell into the Pacific Ocean along with its cargo of 3 Glonass satellites. Although SkyTerra-2 currently is listed as having a March 15, 2011 launch date, it seems hard to imagine that it would be possible to go ahead with the launch at that point in time, unless the antenna was uninsured (as happened with TerreStar-1 in the wake of the Solaris problems last year).

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see whether and how LightSquared moves forward with the buildout of its terrestrial LTE network, which it is required to construct “without regard to satellite service” under the second of the conditions agreed with the FCC in March this year. Given the apparent potential for conflict between this condition and the original ATC gating criteria (which require satellite service to be commercially available before the ATC network is launched), it will be particularly fascinating to see what the FCC does next.

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