LightSquared question is in FCC's hands now

The agency could go ahead and kill the carrier's LTE plan or take other action, and it has no deadline

With the end of the public comment and response periods on LightSquared's plan to operate a 4G LTE service near GPS frequencies, it's now the FCC's turn to decide how to proceed.

LightSquared wants to offer cellular broadband over spectrum that's next to the band used by GPS (Global Positioning System), but tests have shown that its network would interfere with GPS receivers. On Feb. 15, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission proposed cancelling a conditional waiver it had given to LightSquared and indefinitely suspending its permission to build a land-based network.

The agency then set aside time for public comments on its plans, followed by responses to those comments. Thousands of comments came in, arguing on both sides of the issue, and the FCC extended the opportunity to comment. The response period finally ended last week.

In its formal response, filed on Friday, LightSquared slammed its opponents' comments as "revisionist history" and said the FCC's proposal was unsupported by law, science or precedent. LightSquared said the agency could either test more possible solutions to the interference, acknowledge LightSquared's spectrum rights and make GPS vendors pay for solving the problem, or give LightSquared a different block of spectrum. The carrier's loudest critic, the industry group Coalition to Save Our GPS, said LightSquared shouldn't get to use the spectrum because it didn't fulfill a requirement to resolve interference issues.

After reviewing the comments and responses, the FCC could go ahead with its plans or take some other course of action. It has no deadline to act. If it decides to kill LightSquared's plan, the carrier will be given time to file a protest.

It appears unlikely the FCC will act soon.

"I don't think the FCC is going to rush to do anything," said Maury Mechanick, an attorney at White & Case and a former executive of satellite provider Comsat. The agency is out of public eye for now on this case, and as soon as it makes a decision, it will be thrust back into the limelight, he said. Mechanick believes it is likely that LightSquared would sue if the agency shot down its network. The carrier's recent hiring of high-profile Washington lawyers suggests he may be right.

The FCC's options are limited, according to Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. The conditional waiver it gave LightSquared, to let it sell LTE apart from satellite service, required the carrier to prove it wouldn't interfere with GPS.

"That condition has not been met, so I don't know that the commission really has a choice here," Pace said. It's also not clear that the FCC could give LightSquared another spectrum block except as part of a larger rulemaking process, he said. Whatever it may do, the timing of the next step is open-ended, he said. "They are an independent regulatory agency, and they will pick and choose their time."

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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