The FCC witnesses’ testimony at the House Energy & Commerce subcommittee hearing last Friday certainly came as a surprise to many observers, including myself, with their emphasis on blaming the GPS industry for not raising concerns at an earlier date. Predictably, that position defanged much of the criticism from Republican lawmakers, who have switched seamlessly from describing LightSquared as a product of government-backed crony capitalism to a shining example of private enterprise ruined by government regulation. However, it was of course anathema to the GPS Coalition, whose Jim Kirkland described the FCC testimony as “deeply misguided and wrong“.
I had heard earlier in September that the FCC was working on an order which apparently confirmed the February ruling, but it seems that within the last couple of weeks, LightSquared’s lobbying has paid off and the FCC intends to delay a decision (potentially until after the November election) in order to explore alternative solutions which would allow LightSquared to move forward without the widely anticipated litigation battle. Indeed the FCC testimony indicated that receiver performance issues, which had largely been sidelined after the March workshop, are now going to be the subject of a report from the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council (TAC) in “the next few weeks”, which would presumably precede the ruling on LightSquared itself.
While at first sight it may seem surprising that the FCC wants to take up the LightSquared issues once again and initiate another fight with powerful government agencies such as the DoD and FAA, what may have tipped the scales is the enthusiasm of the FCC Chairman for implementing the recommendations of the recent PCAST report on the sharing of government-held spectrum with commercial wireless operators. That alone portends a battle over spectrum with the DoD, but with the White House standing alongside the FCC (as it did in the early stages of the LightSquared waiver effort), the FCC presumably feels confident that some progress can be made.
LightSquared spent the spring and early summer casting around for various solutions to its GPS interference issues in the form of a direct “spectrum swap”, but with little success. However, since publication of the PCAST report, LightSquared appears to have reformulated its proposal as a deal under which it would become the “poster child” for sharing government spectrum as recommended by PCAST, in exchange for accelerated action by the FCC to implement receiver standards within the L-band. LightSquared would then build its terrestrial network initially using shared spectrum, and subsequently move into the lower L-band spectrum in a few years time. The practicality of all this is still to be seen, not least in terms of the timeline for any use of the L-band. However, the proposal appears to be attracting serious consideration within the FCC, and the forthcoming TAC report on receiver standards should provide some guidance as to the likely way forward. Thus the scene appears to be set for a resumption of last year’s battle, and those in the GPS industry who thought the LightSquared issue had been resolved, will need to steel themselves for yet another bitter fight.