GPS worry prompts call for more LightSquared tests

Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:21pm EDT

* Officials say want to promote broadband and protect GPS

* LightSquared proving to be risky bet for hedge fund

By Jasmin Melvin

WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) - U.S. government officials called for more testing of hedge fund manager Philip Falcone's satellite broadband start-up to address interference issues with global positioning systems, but showed interest in finding a solution rather than shutting the venture down.

Falcone's LightSquared has come under fire after months of testing found its original plan for a high-speed wireless network would interfere with GPS services connected to aviation and maritime operations, emergency communications systems, weather tracking, General Motors Co's (GM.N) OnStar equipment and countless other government and commercials uses.

"We have now tested one proposal here, and we found unfortunately that it did not work as originally hoped. That does not mean the story is over," said Department of Transportation Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz.

"Our goal at DOT is to look for a win-win where we can have much better broadband service nationwide, but to do so without disrupting GPS and vital services it provides," he said at a joint hearing of two House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittees on Thursday.

LightSquared aims to sell wholesale wireless services to companies such as Best Buy Co (BBY.N), which would then resell the service under their own brand names.

Signals from the company's ground antennas overwhelmed most GPS units tested, causing them to show inaccurate location information or no data at all.

Rear Admiral Robert Day, chief information officer for the U.S. Coast Guard, stressed the devastating effects to a multitude of aviation and maritime operations that such interference could cause.

But there is more work to be done, Day said. "We will continue that testing and find out exactly what the interference issues are," he said, committed to working with LightSquared if a remedy is possible.

LightSquared unveiled a new plan for deploying its network earlier in the week that it hopes will curb interference issues and satisfy the Federal Communications Commission, which must give its approval before the network can be built.

Falcone and investors in his Harbinger Capital Partners hedge fund have gambled billions of dollars on the success of LightSquared. To date, Harbinger has sunk about $3.1 billion into the wireless venture, making the fund the company's largest single equity investor.

LightSquared's new proposal would use a different block of wireless airwaves for its network than originally planned. These airwaves are 10 megahertz, located farther away from the GPS band.

Kienitz said it is a well intentioned general strategy. "Very preliminary thinking indicates that if they're transmitting in a zone that's much farther away from the GPS band, the interference is likely to be less," he said.

Department of Defense Chief Information Officer Teri Takai noted that testing of this will have to await an official filing of the plan with the FCC, which will direct federal agencies on what to test.

"In aviation there's no room for error," House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri said.

He urged thorough testing "to ensure the FCC does not approve plans that would introduce unacceptable risk into the aviation system or leave aviation GPS users with new and costly burdens."

The telecom start-up has become one of Falcone's riskiest and most high-profile bets. (Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; editing by John Wallace)

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