The Coalition to Save Our GPS challenged LightSquared's forecasts that the FCC will be able to resolve the controversy over the company's planned cellular network by the end of this year, using a conference call with reporters on Thursday to slam the startup's business plan and technical claims.
The next round of testing on LightSquared's proposed LTE (Long-Term Evolution) network will start next week at an Air Force base, said Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of Trimble Navigation, who spoke for the Coalition to Save Our GPS on the call. Those tests are scheduled to be finished by Nov. 30, but further testing is likely to be needed, Kirkland said. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission wants the interference issue resolved before it will approve LightSquared's network.
Timing is important for LightSquared, which has promised to make its network reach 100 million U.S. residents by the end of 2012. LightSquared officials were not immediately available to respond to Kirkland's comments.
The Coalition, which represents manufacturers and users of GPS (Global Positioning System), has been among the most vocal critics of LightSquared's plan to operate a national LTE network on 40,000 terrestrial base stations, using frequencies near to those used for GPS. Tests conducted earlier this year showed the network would knock out GPS for many devices, which scan a wide band of frequencies for weak signals from GPS satellites.
LightSquared has since said it will shift to frequencies farther from the GPS band, but critics say solving interference even there would be expensive and time-consuming. In this lower band, the danger appears to be to high-precision GPS devices such as those used for surveying, agriculture and aviation.
On Thursday, the group also downplayed LightSquared's recent claims of technical solutions to the interference problem in the new band it plans to use. Earlier this month, LightSquared joined with partner Javad GNSS to unveil a filter that it said could be easily added to many of the precision GPS receivers. The carrier also said Partron America has an appropriate filtering component, and on Thursday it announced that PCTel has developed an antenna that solves the interference problem.
The technical fixes LightSquared has announced are "prospective only" and would probably be harder and more expensive to implement than LightSquared has suggested, Kirkland said.
"You don't just screw the top off a survey machine and put a new filter in," Kirkland said.
How much a GPS fix might cost and who should pay for it have started to play a bigger part in the debate over LightSquared's network. LightSquared has said it already committed millions of dollars to changes to its own technology and will contribute up to $50 million to fix gear owned by federal agencies. On Thursday's call, Kirkland and representative from the National Association of Manufacturers said businesses and agencies that use GPS shouldn't have to foot the bill for upgrades that they said could cost billions of dollars.
The Coalition said LightSquared will effectively receive a $10 billion windfall if it's allowed to use its spectrum for a full cellular network that can stand on its own. FCC decisions early in the past decade only allowed the frequencies to be used for a small network to supplement satellite service. If the FCC had handed over the spectrum for a full mobile network, it would have had to auction it off rather than give it for free to LightSquared's predecessor company, Kirkland said.
However, Kirkland said the industry group trusts that the FCC will not allow LightSquared to operate its network unless the interference problem is solved.
"We're taking the FCC at its word," Kirkland said.