Philip Falcone’s LightSquared Inc. is trying to emerge from bankruptcy with a plan that includes persuading U.S. regulators to let it share airwaves used to track storms like Hurricane Sandy.
A U.S. agency has said the frequencies shouldn’t be opened to mobile wireless services like those LightSquared proposes, and weather forecasters have said the public could be deprived of critical information if the frequencies are shared.
Those positions show Reston, Virginia-based LightSquared’s struggle in trying to salvage plans for a satellite-based wireless broadband network serving as many as 260 million people. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in May after the FCC blocked its initial proposal, over concern it would interfere with navigation gear using global-positioning system technology.
The frequencies LightSquared now wants to share “are a really important component of successful hurricane forecasting,” Peter Minnett, a professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami, said in an interview. “They’re the ones that produce the imagery on all the TV broadcasts.”
LightSquared, backed by Falcone’s Harbinger Capital Partners hedge fund, cited the new airwaves-use plan as it won more time to file a reorganization plan at U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York on Oct. 1. Lenders withdrew an objection that called billionaire Falcone’s plan for the company ’’risky.’’
LightSquared in a filing told the government it wants to use the airwaves “in a manner that will protect the integrity of continuing, essential government operations.”
The company wants to begin offering limited high-speed data service over the airwaves it would share with weather facilities, and move to heavier use on another patch of frequencies after the FCC sets rules to avert the interference concerns that stalled the company’s initial plan.
The FCC has told U.S. lawmakers it would consider new ideas from LightSquared, which is citing President Barack Obama’s position that government airwaves should be shared with wireless providers looking for more bandwidth to serve data-hungry smartphones and tablet computers.
“We will continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure that federal operations are completely protected,” Michael Tucker, a spokesman for LightSquared, said in an e-mail.
The hurricane-tracking data on the airwaves LightSquared proposes to share is transmitted by satellite and received at stations in coastal Virginia, central Maryland, Omaha, Nebraska, and Fairbanks, Alaska, according to a 2010 report by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, Obama’s principal adviser on airwaves use.
The 2010 report recommended offering for commercial use a patch of airwaves near those LightSquared proposed to use last month, while saying the specific frequencies identified by the company shouldn’t be shared. The hurricane-tracking data travels across the airwaves the agency recommended not sharing.
Low-power signals carry hurricane imagery from satellites that tells about a storm’s location, motion, and the temperature of upper clouds which helps predict rainfall, Minnett said.
WSI Corp., a member of the Weather Company that includes the Weather Channel and provides forecasts to Cable News Network and News Corp.’s Fox News Channel, in 2010 filed with the FCC to “express concern” over possible public use of weather- forecasting airwaves.
The World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency, in 2010 asked the U.S. to “withdraw” plans for mobile broadband use of the airwaves. Agencies from Germany and Vietnam also wrote to the FCC asking to protect the frequencies from broadband use.
LightSquared’s proposal is consistent with Obama’s goal of airwaves-sharing, Preston Marshall, a Arlington, Virginia-based research professor in electrical engineering with the University of Southern California, said in an interview.
“The problem is, it’s a very ad hoc arrangement” that “is going to meet resistance,” said Marshall, who helped to write a presidential advisory report that advocates more sharing of airwaves. “Every time we try to repurpose spectrum we’ve had these problems.”
An agency with airwaves may be reluctant to share because of “the problem of squatters’ rights,” Marshall said. “Which is, I let you in on a non-interference basis and you create a large public constituency, and then you push me out of the spectrum.”
The company’s request must be approved by the FCC, which consults with the telecommunications administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The latter agency runs the weather services on the airwaves LightSquared covets.
The FCC may take several years to decide whether to accept the plan, and rival companies could try to snatch the airwaves LightSquared wants to share, David Kaut, a Washington-based analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co., said in an interview.
“It’s not impossible somebody will come out of the woodwork and say, ’Why are you just giving it to them?’ ” Kaut said.
David Miller, a spokesman for the oceanic and atmospheric administration, in an e-mail declined to comment. Heather Phillips, a spokeswoman for the telecommunications administration, in an e-mail said the agency may evaluate LightSquared’s plan. Justin Cole, a spokesman for the FCC, declined to comment.
Matthew Barr, a lawyer representing LightSquared, told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Shelley Chapman the new plan envisions wireless coverage across the U.S. The rollout will be “less than a home run” for the company’s business plan because there will still be some “small dead-zone areas,” Barr said.
Sharing airwaves is a first step, LightSquared told the FCC. The company also asked the agency to consider new rules so it can deploy service in other frequencies it has long held.
That may again pit LightSquared against GPS makers and users, Marshall said. “People give up rights and access to spectrum very reluctantly,” Marshall said.
The case is In re LightSquared Inc., 12-12080, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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