Is LightSquared Real? Can it Survive?
06.06.2011 by Andrew M. Seybold
Adding all of these things together, my outlook for LightSquared is bleak to say the least. If I add in the fact that its spectrum, which has the potential to interfere with GPS receivers, has therefore lost most of its value as an asset, it is difficult to understand how the company believes it can succeed.
Okay, so LightSquared has the blessing of the FCC Commissioners to build out a wholesale LTE network using satellite spectrum that is mostly terrestrial and a small part satellite (the data rates for satellite will disappoint for sure). It is obvious to me that the FCC Commissioners never asked the Chief Engineer or his staff if there would be any problem with the service in the next band down, which happens to be the GPS band, before issuing the waiver to LightSquared.
GPS is a receive-only service that relies on the ability to “see” three or more satellites to report a current location. If more satellites are in view, the system can also determine the altitude of the device and the speed and direction of its travel. However, if the GPS signals are being interfered with near LightSquared’s cell sites (it is proposing more than 50,000), those who rely on GPS will have problems. Recent tests of the LightSquared network in New Mexico verified that interference issues do exist.
If people cannot receive a GPS signal, actually multiple GPS signals, then the system does not function. Not only do the people with GPS receivers no longer know where they are, neither does their boss. If they have to call 9-1-1 for an emergency, those answering the phone don’t know where they are either. The radio signals from satellites (GSP satellites and others) are not very strong and any interference to them will wipe them out and prevent them from being received. Except for those designed for military service, GPS receivers don’t have very good receivers. They are not able to filter out interference well (they have not needed to in the past), and in order to get the price point for GPS systems low enough to be built into every cell phone and handheld and dash-mounted device, the receivers have not been built to reject signals in the next band over. So if LightSquared is permitted to move forward with its nationwide rollout, the consequences could be devastating to anyone who relies on GPS services for location, attitude, speed, and direction of travel.
First responders use GPS on a daily basis for finding locations. For example, medevac helicopters are directed to a location to pick up seriously injured patients. If they cannot use their GPS system they are blind and don’t know where to respond. Taxis use GPS so their location can be known to the company, truckers use GPS to find locations, FedEx, UPS, and other delivery services use GPS, and many of us have GPS systems built into our vehicles or we own a GPS device that sits on our dashboard. If the LightSquared spectrum is built out, the chances of wide-spread interference are very real.
Since the FCC issued the waiver to LightSquared, the company contends that it can minimize any interference, but the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other Federal Government agencies have called for the rescinding of the LightSquared waiver to operate a terrestrial system in spectrum that was originally set aside for satellite communications. Even Congress is now in the battle with more than 30 Congressional leaders calling for the FCC to revoke the waiver. In recent New Mexico tests this interference was confirmed.
Meanwhile, LightSquared has indicated that it is heading for an IPO and that it has contracts to provide wholesale fourth-generation broadband to a number of smaller network operators including SI Wireless, Cellular South, Leap Wireless, and others. These companies, none of which have enough of their own spectrum to build out LTE or 4G networks, are planning on wholesaling network capacity from LightSquared. But if the spectrum LightSquared is counting on for its network is not available, what does LightSquared do and what does its partners do?
Well, LightSquared is in talks with AT&T and Sprint to wholesale 4G capacity on these networks. This seems like a logical idea until you step back and look at the economics involved. If LightSquared buys capacity from AT&T, for example, then LightSquared becomes, in reality, a Mobile Virtual Network Operator or MVNO. If it then sells this capacity to its partners, its partners will have to pay a premium for the capacity they could probably obtain directly from AT&T for less than they will pay LightSquared and LightSquared’s business model becomes even more tenuous than it was before.
If LightSquared builds out its network, even with tower sharing and other cost savings, a nationwide network will cost it about $15 billion to build and that is on the low side. Verizon has stated that it has already invested that much and it has existing infrastructure to use to help lower the costs of deployment. Once the network is built, the average monthly cost per cell site for rent, power, insurance, and other costs will be about $6K per month and that is also on the low side). This means LightSquared’s monthly site costs will run about $24 million or nearly $300 million per year. That is before profit and does not include company overhead and other costs. LTE requires either fiber or microwave to and from each cell site and that cost will also be substantial.
If LightSquared leases capacity on someone else’s network it will not have to pay construction or ongoing operational costs, but then its margins will be a lot slimmer, having to buy capacity and then resell it to its partners. I don’t think this business model is very viable either, and if the demand for broadband continues and the company LightSquared is buying capacity from starts having capacity issues of its own, will LightSquared actually get all the capacity for which it has contracted? My guess is that LightSquared becomes a secondary citizen on the network and that if capacity becomes an issue, it will be the first to have to give some up. The other capacity issue is that if LightSquared resells this capacity to four or five other network operators, will they have enough capacity to service their own customer base as broadband demand continues to increase? Either way, it seems to me that this is a very risky business model.
The history of MVNOs is littered with failures. The ones remaining have, for the most part, been purchased by the network operator that was providing capacity to the MVNO in the first place, and once it was determined that the business model was flawed, the MVNO either folded its tent and went home or its customers were absorbed into the parent network. Historically, the MVNO business has not been successful and I don’t see this model as one that leads me to believe things will be different this time around.
Adding all of these things together, my outlook for LightSquared is bleak to say the least. If I add in the fact that its spectrum, which has the potential to interfere with GPS receivers, has therefore lost most of its value as an asset, it is difficult to understand how the company believes it can succeed. Yet It remains bullish and is talking about a future IPO and how bright its income future is. I, for one, don’t believe LightSquared will remain a viable entity. It appears to have been blinded in its judgment by the fact that wireless broadband is growing rapidly, there is no end in sight for this increased demand, and the FCC has recognized that more broadband spectrum will be needed as soon as possible.
The FCC and others in the Federal Government seem to believe we need additional competitors in the wireless space; having more competition will continue to drive down the cost of voice and data services to business and consumer users. In reality, today’s wireless customers in the United States continue to pay some of the lowest rates for wireless voice and data services in the world. Yes, we are entering a new era where unlimited data plans are being withdrawn in favor of plans that limit the amount of data allocated to a single user on a monthly basis, but this is necessary in order for network operators to provide more of their customer base with more access to broadband, and it is one way that broadband demand can be managed in order to accomplish this goal.
The FCC continues to look for additional spectrum as it should since we do need it and we need it as soon as possible. I am sure that LightSquared’s proposal to the FCC was met with much enthusiasm since it would provide additional broadband capacity at the very time it is needed. But if the LightSquared spectrum is deemed unusable for terrestrial broadband service, as I believe it will be, then LightSquared does not bring additional capacity with it when it launches its service. It will simply place a bigger burden on the existing spectrum in terms of capacity demand.
LightSquared would be better served to try to purchase spectrum that is not being used for broadband at the moment. Clearwire has a lot of unused spectrum in the 2.5-GHz band and it needs money, the FCC can auction the AWS-2 and 3 Bands, and the FCC already has spectrum in a number of areas in the country that did not sell at auction or that was taken back because the winning bidder either did not meet the payment requirements of an auction or did not meet the build-out requirements.
We need more wireless spectrum for broadband and we need it soon; the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is about spectrum assets just as the Cingular/AT&T merger was before it. There are only a few ways to obtain more broadband capacity for customers—use more spectrum if it is available, build more cell sites closer together, or a combination of the two. Spectrum is, indeed, a finite resource and demand for wireless broadband services is growing quarter-over-quarter, but that does not mean we should jeopardize an important system such as GPS in order to help fill the void. Instead we need to look at how to get more spectrum that is better suited for wireless broadband into the market as quickly as possible.
We should learn from our past. When Nextel was born by converting spectrum used for land mobile radio systems (LMR) to a cellular architecture, the network caused a lot of interference to existing Land Mobile Radio systems in the same portion of the spectrum. The fix was to reband this spectrum and put all of the Nextel channels together so they would no longer interfere with LMR customers, many of which are public safety agencies. This fix has been in the works for more than five years, has cost Sprint/Nextel more than $3 billion, and will not be completed in some areas of the United States for a few more years. We cannot afford to have this type of interference issue surface again because a company or a federal agency believes that more broadband competition is vital to our wireless broadband future.
LightSquared should not be permitted to build a network in the spectrum adjacent to the GPS service. Every transmitter ever made transmits not only on the portion of the spectrum for which it was designed, it also injects noise into the adjacent spectrum. This is simply the way radio frequency devices work. If there are two broadband systems next to each other most of the time, this interference can be minimized. However, when you put a broadband system right next to the GPS service on which the receivers are searching for low-powered signals from multiple satellites, you are asking for trouble. The goal should be to provide additional spectrum for broadband without causing problems for other services. I do not believe that can be accomplished in this case.
Andrew M. Seybold