LightSquared gains netTalk, faces more critics

FedEx and the N.Y. City Fire Department have joined a group fighting GPS interference

Mobile startup LightSquared has gained another wholesale customer on Tuesday even as more critics joined a group that opposes LightSquared's planned LTE network on the grounds that it will interfere with GPS.

NetTalk, which sells an inexpensive alternative to landline phone service using VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol), will resell access to LightSquared's LTE (Long-Term Evolution) mobile network under its own branded service. The companies did not disclose the value of the multiyear agreement. NetTalk joins customers including Best Buy and Leap Wireless that plan to buy wholesale service from LightSquared, which won't offer services directly to consumers. Sprint Nextel also plans to use LightSquared's service, according to news reports.

But opponents continued to line up against LightSquared, claiming the carrier's plans imperil GPS (Global Positioning System) devices because its LTE towers will interfere with satellite signals that those devices depend on. On Tuesday, more than a dozen new members joined the Coalition to Save Our GPS, which repeatedly has voiced concern about LightSquared's plans. The new members include FedEx, the Air Line Pilots Association, Magellan GPS and the New York City Fire Department.

LightSquared is facing a deadline on July 1 to report the results of a testing program it was required to set up as condition of its network approval from the FCC. The carrier had to form a technical working group with entities that make and use GPS technology, then report by June 15 on any interference with GPS and ways to resolve it. After information came in too late from the tests, the group received an extension until July 1. Test results that have already been disclosed showed serious interference with devices used for public safety, agriculture, aviation, surveying and other applications.

The carrier was granted access to valuable spectrum for LTE by agreeing to deploy a hybrid satellite-LTE network that would provide mobile data service across rural areas of the U.S. and fill in metropolitan areas with the higher-capacity LTE system. The plan has caused controversy because it allows cellular signals in the MSS (Mobile Satellite System) frequency band, which until now has been used only for fairly low-power satellite signals. Critics say the terrestrial LTE network would use about 1 billion times more power than satellite systems do, knocking out GPS communications.

Last week, LightSquared proposed initially leaving aside the upper 10MHz of its spectrum, which is closest to the GPS band, and launching its service in a lower 10MHz band instead. It said the alternative plan would also involve lower power operation. Critics, including the Coalition, said the new proposed plan would still cause interference with highly sensitive GPS equipment. At a hearing last week before the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittees on Aviation and on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, lawmakers and witnesses called for more testing to make sure that move would mitigate the interference for all GPS devices.

On Monday, the Coalition continued to attack LightSquared's new proposal, saying it would not lower power levels or prevent interference.

"LightSquared's claim that lower band operations would be largely free of interference for non-high precision GPS users is simply not true," the group wrote in a press release. "The only real solution to the LightSquared interference problem is to move out of the MSS band altogether."

LightSquared has struck back with its own public-opinion campaign, launching a Public Policy page on its website and sponsoring a study of GPS by consulting company The Brattle Group. The study said the GPS industry gets an implicit $18 billion subsidy from the U.S. government because it uses GPS frequencies free of charge. GPS devices essentially use LightSquared's spectrum because they lack adequate filters to limit the frequencies they use.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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