The third-largest American mobile network's plans to diversify its data networks took a huge blow this week as the FCC once again told LightSquared to just forget its whole business plan. In January, a White House committee reported that LightSquared's proposed hybrid of satellite and tower-based signals would interfere with certain types of GPS receivers, and that there's no practical solution to these problems. LightSquared demanded more time and retests (what is this, an election in Florida?), and Sprint happily pushed back its own deadline for FCC approval.
Try, try again
Now another agency has combed through the testing methods that LightSquared found so unfair, and recommends that the FCC shut down the whole idea. Specifically, the NTIA task force found that GPS functions in smartphones would be OK, but airline navigation devices could be hampered and the majority of personal GPS navigators like the car navigation and jogging-trail trackers sold by Garmin (Nasdaq: GRMN ) and Trimble Navigation (Nasdaq: TRMB ) most certainly would fail when they got too close to a LightSquared cell tower.
The review finds that the testing methods were pretty fair after all, and comes from a body not tainted by GPS-industry executives among its ranks. LightSquared has even given up on that line of protests, instead focusing on the GPS industry being "too big to fail."
Phones get by because they do more than just look for a faint GPS satellite signal -- your position is also hashed out from other sources such as cell signal measurements and network log analysis. This takes more than a GPS receiver, and most single-purpose navigation tools don't come with the required 2G/3G/4G connection parts. The aircraft failures are the most damning of these errors, because there are lives at stake when airborne navigation fails.
You can blame Garmin and Trimble for not designing their GPS receivers with LightSquared's purchased and published spectrum in mind, but then the hybrid model attempts to use high-powered terrestrial signals in a radio band licensed for much weaker satellite signals. It's like buying beachfront land zoned for single-story condos and then blocking out the view with a 100-story skyscraper. Expect the neighbors to complain, and loudly.
Sprint is running out of options
So it's back to square one for LightSquared, and I think Sprint is running out of patience for any further deadline extensions.
The network might work better by marrying a pure satellite service from LightSquared with an LTE 4G component in a different part of the spectrum, far away from those sensitive satellite territories. You'd lose some of the elegance of handing over mobile signals from towers to satellites as needed, all on the same frequency. Maybe the phones would be more expensive and less streamlined because they'd need to handle several unrelated radio signals.
That actually sounds a lot like the hybrid broadband plan DISH Network (Nasdaq: DISH ) is putting together out of satellite and terrestrial radio licenses bought on the cheap in bankruptcy auctions. DISH's network isn't approved by the FCC either, but at least it doesn't have the entire GPS industry pulling in the other direction.
There's no reason that Sprint wouldn't knock on DISH's door now that the LightSquared alternative is practically dead. Well, except for the fact that DISH mastermind Charlie Ergen is a fiercely independent kind of guy who would probably prefer to market his 4G network squarely under the DISH umbrella. That's just how he rolls.
So back to Clearwire Sprint goes, hat in hand. This love triangle -- nay, a love square -- hinges on a report published on Valentine's Day. Now we just need a long-lost stepdaughter with cancer and a Nobel Prize, and it's a ready-made Univision telenovela. You could place your bets on the final outcome of this complicated plot -- or just stay away. There are certainly easier ways to invest in the mobile data explosion.