LightSquared to Start Building LTE Network

LightSquared plans to start building its terrestrial wireless network soon, despite a regulatory approval process that has sparked vehement opposition from GPS vendors and won't be over until at least the middle of August.

"We can begin to roll out the network without turning it on," said Martin Harriman, executive vice president of LightSquared, in an interview on Thursday. "We will start deployments shortly, we have base stations in production, and ... our first devices are imminent."

The startup believes all the pieces are in place for it to start rolling out the network, except for the need for approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to start using its radio spectrum, Harriman said. By getting infrastructure in place before the final approval, it could launch services more quickly after the decision.

LightSquared is on track to begin large-scale testing of its US$14 billion hybrid network at the beginning of next year, with commercial service available toward the end of the first quarter, Harriman said. Data cards with both satellite and LTE (Long-Term Evolution) capability will also be ready in or near the September timeframe to which the company committed to the FCC earlier this year. At that point, the devices will start to undergo extensive testing in preparation for the launch of services, he said.

In addition to covering 100 percent of the U.S. population with a satellite network, LightSquared has committed to reaching 36 percent of U.S. residents with its LTE (Long-Term Evolution) network by the end of 2012. By 2015, that figure would grow to 92 percent, or 260 million people. LightSquared won't offer consumers access to the networks directly but will sell service wholesale to partners including Best Buy and Leap Wireless.

However, because of LightSquared's unprecedented plan to use frequencies in the MSS (Mobile Satellite Service) band for a full-scale cellular network based on land, the company's service is hostage to an FCC requirement that it resolve possible interference with GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers. On Thursday, LightSquared gave the FCC the results of interference tests and a new plan to prevent problems by setting aside part of its spectrum.

Those reports are open for public comment until July 30 and then for responses until Aug. 15. The International Bureau, which oversees the MSS spectrum, could take as long as it likes to issue an order, and that order could be appealed to the FCC's commissioners for a vote.

The threat of disruption to GPS has sparked fierce opposition from companies in several industries and led government agencies to voice caution about the LTE network.

The company already has satellites in orbit, including SkyTerra-1, one of the world's largest communications satellites. Along with backup satellites, SkyTerra-1 will be able to deliver a connection to subscribers of hundreds of kilobits per second both upstream and downstream, Harriman said. As with other satellite systems, using it will require an unobstructed view of the sky.

LightSquared's cellular data network will be competitive with other LTE systems, such as Verizon's, and capable of downstream speed of about 20M bps (bits per second), he said. Leaving the upper portion of its spectrum aside wouldn't affect the speed of the network, but that spectrum would probably be needed later to expand capacity to serve a growing user base, Harriman said.

The dual-mode client devices for LightSquared's network will be based on the Qualcomm MDM9600 chipset, which is already shipping in volume, Harriman said. The MDM9600 is a flexible chipset that can be adapted to many different types of radio networks. Prototype data cards built with the MDM9600 are already in testing with Qualcomm in San Diego, Harriman said. LightSquared expects handsets to start shipping next June.

Both the Qualcomm-based clients and the base stations on LightSquared's LTE network can be easily adapted to use different parts of the company's spectrum, so the company's new plan won't hold up development of those components, Harriman said.

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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