Why You Should Regret LightSquared's Setbacks

from the competition-is-good dept

LightSquared is a new wireless carrier that has been trying to launch a wholesale 4G network across the USA. Funded by private equity firm Harbinger Capital, it sought to re-purpose satellite communication frequencies to build a nationwide cellular-satellite hybrid network, and then re-sell the network capacity to other brands. In January 2011, the FCC, eager to foster new competitors in the mobile space, gave LightSquared the green light to launch using their spectrum with one provision - that their network equipment NOT interfere with GPS signals and devices. Well, over a year has come and gone, and despite incredible effort and wrangling, the independent testing keeps indicating that LightSquared's terrestrial towers are not compatible with GPS device use. As such, the FCC has basically rescinded LightSquared's request to launch service on their 1.5GHz L-Band spectrum.

Note that, while LightSquared DID knock out GPS devices, it was not LightSquared that transmitted on the GPS frequencies, but rather the GPS devices that sloppily "listen" to the adjacent LightSquared frequencies. The GPS chipsets were generally cheaply made with inadequate filtering. That said, who is at fault is irrelevant: it remains LightSquared's problem to solve if they want to launch their network. A long history of spectrum policy states that new entrants must not mess up the existing radio devices.

What we've lost here is the chance to have a truly innovative wireless carrier which would have stimulated competition, energized the vendor community, and provided a white-label network for MVNOs. LightSquared had, in fact, signed up dozens of partners who would offer LTE wireless services as cellular companies, CE makers, and store brands like Best Buy, for example, who could sell connectivity in a bundle with laptops. Maisie Ramsay over at Wireless Week explains how a vast community of over 30 technology vendors have also lost a valuable path to market.

What strikes me, as someone who works with wireless carriers (LightSquared included), is that we may lose one of the scrappiest players out there. And markets thrive when a scrappy player stirs up the pot. Hutchison Whampoa stirred up the UK markets when it launched 3G in 2003, Free is currently doing the same in France. In the USA, we have regional players like Metro PCS, but nothing at the national level. My role at the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley is right where innovators meet with the telcos, and it was gratifying to see the tornado of new ideas, vendors, and possibilities that came about with a new network. Without legacy systems nor legacy thinking, lots of great ideas are free to emerge.

For now, with LightSquared's options dwindling, we may have to have to look elsewhere for new competition and open creativity. The WiFi space is fairly promising, as the spread of hotspots continues to soar, and new versions (802.11ac) promise greater range and throughput. Chipsets are cheap, and billions of WiFi devices have been produced. Republic Wireless exemplifies the possibilities of leveraging WiFi in mobile phones to the limit. Lots of people are hoping that the "white spaces" frequencies in between TV channels will be offered up to a WiFi variant, which will mean low-frequency spectrum that penetrates walls and buildings much better than today's WiFi. I like what the US carriers have done with the (globally) early launch of LTE, but there's no doubt that with increased competition we'd have a more dynamic market.

Filed Under: competition, gps, interference, spectrum, wifi, wireless
Companies: lightsquared


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  1. icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), 21 Feb 2012 @ 9:35am

    Re: Re: Re:

    There seems to be a lot of overall anger with LS's purchase of spectrum on the cheap. But someone needs to explain to me all the ways we can get more competition in the US without an easier path to market than bidding at auction against the deep pocketws at AT&T and Verizon.

    Even when other players win spectrum at auction, like the cable companies, it often ends up getting re-sold to the biggest carriers, who simply have a better ability to leverage and monetize the spectrum.

    Sure LS got spectrum on the cheap, but it wasn't exactly beach-front property, was it? It came encumbered with a sensitive neighbor, and if you aggravated them, you got shut down. That's a lot of risk, thus the spectrum is rightly low-priced.

    And, so long as we're being angry with LS getting this risky spectrum for a low price, why not funnel some angst at all the TV stations, broadcasters, etc. who got loads of free spectrum for TV decades ago, and who have been monetizing it ever since. Or the last-mile service providers who got free access to trench our towns and nation? Or the railways who were given so much land? There is a long history of giving away public real estate to build national networks because of the benefit those networks might impart. Spread your anger around.

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