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LightSquared sees no obstacles left blocking LTE network


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Correction: A previous version of this story stated that LightSquared expects to receive FCC approval for its LTE network in mid-December. LightSquared actually expects that approval to come in mid-September.

After Thursday’s announcement of a network sharing deal with Sprint (CP: Sprint confirms LightSquared LTE tie-up), LightSquared chief marketing officer Frank Boulben said all the pieces have fallen into place for the launch of its long-term evolution launch in the fourth quarter—all of the pieces save one. LightSquared still needs final FCC approval to move forward with its terrestrial network plans.

That’s no minor obstacle. Opposed to LightSquared stands the might of the GPS industry, which has provided substantial evidence that the operators LTE network would cause massive interference problems with GPS receivers. If the millions of devices and applications that depend on GPS signals for their location data were in jeopardy, the FCC would have a difficult time approving LightSquared’s plans (CP: Sorting out the LightSquared GPS interference mess).

But Boulben said LightSquared has done its due diligence before the regulators. Though it didn’t win the support of GPS vendors, LightSquared has demonstrated that it can field a network that won’t harm the vast majority of GPS receivers; the interference issues that remain with high-precision filters can be solved with retroactive filters, Boulben said. The public comment period will be contentious, but Boulben said LightSquared is confident that the FCC will green-light its plans in mid-September, paving the way for its initial deployment next quarter and a commercial launch next year.

LightSquared has agreed to retool its existing deployment plans, moving its network downlink away from GPS to the lower portion of the L-band, which alleviates interference problems for the majority of devices (though there is still considerable disagreement between device vendors and LightSquared over how much interference mitigation is enough). But high-precision receivers reach beyond the GPS frequencies into the heart of the L-band where they access augmentation signals to hone their location coordinates. For those devices, interference is still a huge problem. Boulben, however, insists it’s not LightSquared’s problem.

LightSquared has implemented all of the necessary network filters to prevent its networks from transmitting in the GPS and augmentation bands, Boulben said. The problem lies with the way high-precision receivers are designed, he said. They’re built to receive all frequencies between the augmentation and GPS bands, meaning the interference they experience is a result of them listening in on LightSquared’s LTE frequencies, he said.

“This is a receiver issue. LightSquared is fully compliant with the rules,” Boulben said. “The smartphone manufacturers have done their jobs. The iPhone and many Android devices are designed not to listen out of the GPS band. But there are other manufacturers that have ignored the rules established by the FCC.”

While many GPS device manufacturers have designed to receive L-band signals, it was a never a problem when the spectrum was reserved solely for satellite service use. Much weaker orbital signals never overwhelmed GPS receivers. Only when high-powered terrestrial LTE signals enter the band does interference become an issue. The GPS industry maintains that that the L-band has always been reserved for satellite services for that reason, and that no terrestrial LTE network can co-exist with GPS in L-band because of it.

Both sides are confident that their arguments will sway the FCC, but if LightSquared prevails there will be no remaining obstacles to prevent it from going forward its launch. Its network sharing deal with Sprint will allow it to deploy that network faster and at a much lower cost than it would have it deployed 40,000 new base stations. Sprint’s Network Vision architecture can support LightSquared’s LTE network on the same base stations as its CDMA network due to its technology-agnostic design. Boulben said LightSquared will save $13 billion over 8 years and will achieve its 260 million-pops-coverage goal in 2014, a year earlier than planned.

LightSquared effectively will be leasing infrastructure from Sprint so it won’t incur the massive up-front capital expenditures that accompany any new network. That relieves it of a good deal of its financing pressure, which was LightSquared’s second biggest obstacle to deployment. Ultimately LightSquared will be on the hook for $9 billion in payments to Sprint, but those will be spread out over 11 years. The remainder of leasing costs will be paid in the form of bandwidth credits that Sprint can use for its own 4G service.

LightSquared has already demonstrated there is plenty of demand for its wholesale business model, having signed up retailers like Best Buy and operators like Leap Wireless long before its network ever saw life. It’s gotten commitments from Qualcomm to build the LTE chipsets at its 1.6 GHz frequencies and even support satellite radios for dual-mode customers.

LightSquared, however, may be limited as to the size of the network it can build. As part of its concession to the GPS industry, LightSquared is leaving its upper-band downlink spectrum untouched—at least initially—preventing it from deploying the two 10 MHz-by-10 MHz LTE carriers it originally intended. LightSquared has access to 59 MHz total, but not all of it can be used for its primary frequency division duplexing (FDD) LTE network. A portion of that spectrum is being used for a satellite service, while another 13 MHz sits in a single block, having no distinct uplink and downlink component. That leaves it with a single 10 MHz-by-10-MHz carrier, the same bandwidth Verizon Wireless uses for its 4G LTE network.

Boulben pointed out that 10x10 is by no means a small amount of capacity. Even though Sprint is able to reserve as much as half of that capacity, Sprint will be a paying customer like all of LightSquared’s other MVNO partners, Boulben said. He expects that single carrier will have enough capacity to support 25 million devices each using an average of 4 GB a month. That gives LightSquared plenty of headroom for the next five years, after which LightSquared has plenty of option, he said.

“We are looking at several different engineering scenarios,” Boulben said. “We won’t need any new capacity for several years and when we do we’re confident that the technology will be available to allow us to expand into the rest of the L-band.”

The guard band LightSquared created just below GPS won’t be permanent, Boulben said. LightSquared acknowledges there is no commercially feasible technology available today it could use prevent to LTE interference in the upper L-band, but LightSquared plans to work with wireless and GPS industry vendors to develop such a solution with hopes of it being commercially available in several years, Boulben said. Even if it takes longer than five or six years to develop those filters or technique, LightSquared can use other parts of its spectrum. It wouldn’t be able to deploy more FDD LTE, but it could use its unpaired spectrum to deploy time division duplexing (TDD) networks similar to the WiMAX systems Clearwire uses today. Only one channel in the upper L-band, the downlink, would be off limits, Boulben said. The uplink in the upper L-band is well a ways from the GPS band and could be turned into a single 10 MHz TDD carrier. LightSquared could do the same with its 13 MHz block, Boulben said.

Those are concerns for a much later time, however, Boulben said. LightSquared’s first priority will be get its initial footprint built so it can start selling capacity to its growing list of customers. Given that LTE and CDMA will share the same infrastructure, the LTE network’s expansion will depend on Sprint’s Network Vision deployment schedule. Part of LightSquared’s agreement with Sprint includes roaming on Sprint’s legacy 3G network, allowing LightSquared to provide some degree of mobile broadband in areas where it doesn’t offer LTE. In areas where Sprint’s EV-DO network isn’t available, LightSquared will use its satellite network for coverage.

“By 2014 when the network is fully deployed, we won’t need to rely on 3G,” Boulben said. “Our 4G network will completely overlap the 3G network.”


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