The Federal Communications Commission announced this week that it would seek to block a promising new wireless venture by the Virginia company LightSquared because of the interference it caused with Global Positioning System signals. The commission's hands may have been tied; GPS plays a crucial role in navigation, and a Commerce Department report found "no practical way to mitigate the potential interference at this time." But the FCC shouldn't leave future start-ups sidelined by the apparent shortcomings of GPS equipment.
LightSquared sought to use satellite communications airwaves for a new, land-based network that would sell wireless phone and data services wholesale. Its goal was to help companies enter or expand in the market for mobile services, especially in underserved rural areas. The problem was that the frequencies it had acquired the rights to use were close to those used for GPS. Even though LightSquared said it could keep its service within its own frequency boundaries, many GPS receivers — for example, navigation devices for drivers and pilots — were disrupted, evidently because they weren't capable of filtering out signals from the airwaves licensed to LightSquared.
Fixing that problem would be so expensive and time-consuming that the Commerce Department concluded it wasn't a viable option. LightSquared executives disagreed and said they're weren't ready to give up on a technical solution. Yet the imprecision of GPS devices highlights the need for clear standards for receivers in any frequency band. Otherwise, this country will have to leave large swaths of valuable spectrum unused simply to avoid disturbing older and potentially less useful technologies.
Considering the rapid increase in demand for wireless bandwidth, the federal government needs to encourage more investment, not less, from the likes of LightSquared. One way would be to make more airwaves available by reassigning underused frequencies, which Congress and the executive branch have been agonizingly slow to do.
Lawmakers may finally authorize the FCC to auction off frequencies no longer needed by television broadcasters as part of a bill to extend a temporary cut in the payroll tax, which would be a welcome development. But some House Republicans have sought to stop the commission from making any of those frequencies available to the public for free, unlicensed uses, arguing that it would reduce the amount of revenue generated by the auctions. Such a restriction would impose a huge barrier to entry for start-ups and innovators. Lawmakers and the FCC should remember that Wi-Fi was an unanticipated use of unlicensed airwaves, and it's been a boon to consumers and industry alike. Generating the most value for the public, not the most revenue, is the best use of spectrum. That's a powerful argument for preserving some of the newly vacated airwaves for unlicensed innovation.