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LightSquared says it’s near breakthrough in nationwide wireless network

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The boss of an upstart Virginia company said Wednesday that his firm is on the cusp of solving technical problems that have dogged its effort to build a nationwide high-speed wireless network that critics worry will cripple military and commercial navigation systems.

"Watch this space," Sanjiv Ahuja, CEO of Reston-based LightSquared, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. "In the next few days, we will come out and say, 'It's possible, and here's the engineering solution for it.' "

Mr. Ahuja and his company for months have been at the center of a firestorm of controversy over the $15 billion network, which he said will slash consumers' cellphone bills by more than a third. The row was set to continue this week when Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, testifies to a House Armed Services subcommittee.

The hearing will examine claims from the GPS industry that the LightSquared network — which uses a portion of the radio frequency spectrum adjacent to the one used by GPS devices - will interfere with the receivers used in its products, such as in-car navigation systems. The subcommittee also will hear from defense officials about any potential impact on military GPS navigation systems, such as those used in smart bombs.

At a congressional hearing this month, the government official in charge of maintaining the GPS system expressed concern about the impact of LightSquared's planned network.

"LightSquared's proposed system would create harmful interference [with GPS devices] throughout all three phases of its planned deployment," Anthony Russo, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing, told the House Science Committee.

Mr. Ahuja said Wednesday that getting approval for the network was "one of the most politicized [regulatory] processes" he had ever experienced in more than 30 countries where he has owned and operated telecommunications networks.

However, he added that his company has worked with U.S. regulators and will be able to solve the technical issues they raised in plenty of time to meet a Nov. 30 deadline to complete tests to show that the network will not interfere with GPS receivers.

"I feel very good about what FCC and [the National Telecommunications and Information Administration] have done," he said.

"I like an engineering challenge," he added. "For months, we've been trying to get it to be an engineering issue instead of leaked reports and innuendos and a politically driven process.

"We're trying to get it to be a fact-based conversation based on engineering and technical data. … That I can deal with very easily."

He said LightSquared was working hard and had spent millions of dollars to be a "good neighbor" to the GPS industry, which he blamed for the technical problems.

He said GPS receivers should have been better designed to eliminate interference from neighboring areas of the spectrum,adding that the industry's response had been "very disappointing and in many ways irresponsible."

The industry says the spectrum was originally designated for satellite — not ground-based — use.

"Now LightSquared is trying to change the rules and repurpose it for terrestrial transmission," said Dale Leibach, a spokesman for the industry group Coalition to Save Our GPS. "This is a problem because LightSquared made a bad gamble."

Mr. Ahuja said his company aimed to "fundamentally transform the way in which American consumers get telecommunications services" and make a technological leap in both service quality and coverage at the same time.

The LightSquared network would be the first to integrate ground-based cellular service from radio towers across the country and satellite-based service.

The network would offer high-speed Internet and phone services "to every single American [over] every square inch of the United States," Mr. Ahuja said.

He said the company raised $4.3 billion from investors and spent more than $1 billion building and launching its satellite and $2 billion acquiring the companies that owned the technology and the licenses it needed.

LightSquared employs 350 people at its Reston headquarters and "hundreds and hundreds" of engineers and other contractors across the country who are building the network, which Mr. Ahuja said would cost $14 billion over eight years.

He said the fourth-generation LightSquared service would offer "the kind of quality American consumers have not experienced before" in telecommunications, such as the ability to place and receive calls "through two concrete walls [or in a] moving elevator."

He said the service will upend "an industry in which the United States has become a laggard, not a leader." The United States ranks 17th in the world in terms of high-speed wireless penetration, "comparable to Malta or Bahrain," he said.

"Network coverage in Mumbai is superior to that in Memphis," he said.

He blamed an industry model in which the same companies build the networks, operate the systems, and sell the services and the handsets that receive them.

"Innovation is unleashed once the business model is changed," he said.

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