Byron Dorgan and others, Washington, column: Rural America needs next-gen wireless network

By Byron Dorgan, George Nethercutt and Charlie Stenholm WASHINGTON -- We all know that access to high-quality, affordable wireless service can be difficult in rural areas. We've all experienced phone calls dropped in mid-sentence or seeing the wo...

By Byron Dorgan, George Nethercutt and Charlie Stenholm

WASHINGTON -- We all know that access to high-quality, affordable wireless service can be difficult in rural areas. We've all experienced phone calls dropped in mid-sentence or seeing the words "no service," emails that take hours to send and websites that never load.

And all of us know what it's like to get the monthly bill and be shocked by how much we're paying.

LightSquared is out to change all that. With their new nationwide wireless network that combines direct-to-satellite service with ground-based towers, LightSquared will offer high-speed wireless broadband even in remote areas.

Rural Americans will be able to access the Internet 300 times faster than a dial-up connection.


The company's business model is equally revolutionary. LightSquared will sell broadband access on a wholesale-only basis, allowing any number of smaller wireless providers to enter the market, including carriers that specialize in rural areas, such as rural telephone cooperatives, independent telephone companies and others such as Open Range and Cellular South. More competition means more innovation, better service and lower prices.

For business owners, farmers, workers and families in rural America, LightSquared could be a real breakthrough, especially for the 28 percent of rural households that don't have any kind of broadband access.

LightSquared helps bridge this digital divide.

It's not just LightSquared saying so, either. The Rural Cellular Association has stated that "LightSquared's wholesale broadband network would significantly advance the FCC's goal of promoting much-needed competition in the wireless market.

"Permitting LightSquared to move forward expeditiously would not only introduce new competition, it would help ensure that existing smaller, rural and regional wireless carriers remain competitive with the major national carriers."

In fact, the association believes LightSquared's network may be the only way for rural Americans to gain affordable access to wireless high-speed data services.

But before LightSquared can launch service, the company has both technical and political hurdles to overcome.

LightSquared's licensed spectrum -- the airwaves assigned for the network -- are next door to the global positioning system (GPS) spectrum, and some GPS devices are using LightSquared's spectrum for their service.


The FCC is studying the susceptibility of GPS devices to LightSquared's signals, as they have been designed to "squat" in LightSquared's spectrum in search of GPS signals.

LightSquared is confident in meeting any technical challenges and doing so entirely through private investment -- no taxpayer dollars of any kind.

But the political hurdles are proving to be even more daunting. Some GPS corporate interests are asking Congress to prohibit the FCC process from moving forward. But the testing process is critical because GPS services are important in many parts of our lives, particularly in agriculture.

The FCC has said that GPS and LightSquared can co-exist so that rural Americans can reap the benefits of both GPS services and LightSquared's robust broadband wireless network.

Fortunately, a solution is on the horizon. After the initial round of testing conducted by LightSquared, GPS and government engineers, LightSquared proposed launching service only in the lower half of its licensed spectrum -- the frequencies furthest away from the GPS frequencies -- which would leave a wide buffer zone between itself and the closest GPS frequency.

Test results indicate that 99.95 percent of existing GPS devices would not be affected if LightSquared were to operate on the lower 10 MHz, and LightSquared has committed to underwrite a technological fix that addresses the remaining receivers that might be affected.

Engineers are already working on a solution, and the prognosis from vendors is that building a GPS device that tunes out LightSquared's LTE signals is imminent.

The FCC recently asked the GPS industry for details about its receivers that pick up signals inside LightSquared's spectrum. As engineers develop filters or other technical solutions that could solve the problem, rural Americans are starting to speak out in favor of an important principle: our economic future depends on both GPS and world-class wireless broadband.


Thanks to American ingenuity, we can have both.

Dorgan is a former U.S senator from North Dakota. Nethercutt and Stenholm both are former U.S. representatives -- Nethercutt from Washington, and Stenholm from Texas.

LightSquared hired the former lawmakers to serve on advisory board for the Empower Rural America Initiative, a group that will help the company work toward deploying its planned satellite and broadband service.

What To Read Next
Get Local