There’s been a lot of talk recently about fast 4G cellular networks, first with Sprint launching its WiMax-based mobile broadband service, then with T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network. Verizon Wireless really threw down the gauntlet when it flipped the switch to 4G LTE service in December, offering speeds in excess of 15 Mbps. All of this competition is great news for mobile device users, whether they’re corporate travelers with laptop data cards or casual smart phone or tablet surfers.
The Achilles heel of 4G cellular networks is access. Thus far, carriers have only deployed the infrastructure in select major cities. But imagine grabbing a blisteringly fast 4G LTE signal almost anywhere in the US. That’s just what Virginia-based LightSquared hopes to make possible.
Using terrestrial cellular stations supplemented with a network of space-based communication satellites, LightSquared plans to build a 4G LTE wireless broadband system the likes of which the planet has never seen.
Why the Competition Should Care
Cellular carriers rely on a network of land-based towers and repeaters to distribute their signals throughout the country. Deploying all that physical hardware is time-consuming and expensive, which in turn hinders 4G footprint growth. By launching a GPS-style orbital setup, LightSquared theoretically solves these headaches and can conceivably roll out its system more efficiently. If all goes according LightSquared’s design, the company will be able to sell 4G LTE network access back to the highest bidder, be that U.S. Cellular, T-Mobile, or another player. In fact, LightSquared has said its objective is to operate as a wholesale provider only, and not to sell its network access directly to consumers.
Using satellites for high-speed mobile data sounds like a great plan on paper, but it’s risky—and lobbing anything into orbit certainly isn’t cheap. The million-dollar question is whether LightSquared can build its space-age infrastructure without too many technical glitches or setbacks. For example, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) recently placed LightSquared under increased scrutiny over fears that its terrestrial base stations will cause interference with GPS and emergency communications. However, a green light has now been given by the FCC and the company anticipates a commercial launch by the second half of 2011.