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LightSquared asks to share weather-balloon spectrum for its LTE network

The carrier would give up part of the spectrum where GPS interference led the FCC to shoot down its LTE plans

Embattled satellite carrier LightSquared proposed on Friday that the government let it share spectrum with federal uses such as weather balloons so it can get enough spectrum to launch its proposed national LTE mobile network.

LightSquared would give up on deploying LTE in one band of spectrum that it had been planning to use for that network before the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to kill its plans over interference with GPS receivers. In the proposal it submitted on Friday, the company also offered to hold off on using the rest of that controversial spectrum until the FCC can carry out a rulemaking process that could take years.

The spectrum-sharing plan would allow LightSquared to launch a high-speed LTE network sooner than any other new competitor in the U.S., LightSquared told the FCC in its filing. It would also ensure that GPS reception isn't affected by the new network, the company said.

Growing demand for mobile data services has made the market for high-speed networks attractive to many players. Satellite TV operator Dish Network is also seeking FCC approval to operate an LTE network in spectrum that traditionally has been used for satellite services. LightSquared intends to sell capacity on its network wholesale to other service providers, who would then use it to offer LTE plans to subscribers.

LightSquared was formed through a combination of satellite companies and operates satellite-based service already. In January 2011, the FCC gave LightSquared conditional approval to build a land-based mobile data network using LTE. The approval said LightSquared could sell the cellular service without a satellite component, which opened up a much bigger market for the company. But it also required testing to find out if the LTE network might interfere with GPS receivers, and a series of tests showed that it would.

The company has been calling for a spectrum swap or sharing arrangement ever since the FCC proposed killing its LTE plans in February. In the meantime, LightSquared has declared bankruptcy. On Friday, it finally laid out a specific plan.

The new plan would give the carrier 30MHz of frequencies on which to operate the LTE network. That's 10MHz less than it had wanted but still comparable to the amount of spectrum Verizon Wireless and AT&T are using for their LTE systems, which in most areas use just 20MHz. Wireless network speeds are determined partly by how much spectrum the network uses, so LightSquared might be able to deliver a competitive service for its planned coverage area of 260 million U.S. residents.

However, just getting the spectrum-sharing plan approved would take an indeterminate amount of time while the company works its way through the bankruptcy process.

What LightSquared wants to do is take one 5MHz band that it already uses for its satellite service (at 1670-1675MHz) and combine that with the next band up (1675-1680MHz), which is used for federal purposes including National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration weather balloons. The government could keep using that band, while LightSquared's LTE network would share it.

This would give LightSquared 10MHz for downstream traffic to customers' LTE devices. Another pair of bands that it uses for satellite now, which total 20MHz, would be used for LTE traffic going upstream from users' mobile devices.

The FCC rulemaking that LightSquared wants, which would probably take even longer than setting up the spectrum-sharing plan, would give LightSquared another 10MHz of spectrum so it could offer more data capacity eventually. But the carrier is offering to permanently give up its terrestrial rights to the upper band of the spectrum that it had originally proposed to use for LTE, which is closest to the frequencies that GPS uses.

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 [email protected]


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