Economic Security for Rural America: LightSquared Round Two

While pundits furiously discuss the impending "fiscal cliff" created by Congress, there is dead silence on building sustainable economic security. An essential building block to economic growth lies in expanding broadband access to rural America. Instead of pushing each other over the self-made cliff, why not build a bridge across the digital divide?

A company called LightSquared made headlines much of the last year by proposing a game-changing nationwide wireless system backed by a satellite communications system. By deploying satellite technology, cell phones and mobile devices could have seamless service even in the absence of cell towers -- a common problem even in urban regions like DC.

After billions were invested in the project, the initiative stalemated when it was discovered during testing that GPS receivers were using spectrum outside of their range. The LightSquared project was hardly the first to run into technical and engineering glitches, but the glitches turned into a vicious political fight over spectrum use.

However, the fight isn't just about spectrum. It's also about rural economics. Without a real rural broadband solution for the entire country, we will continue to stifle economic growth in regions that could otherwise effectively compete in the global marketplace. "Move to a city" is hardly an acceptable solution, though I've heard it far more often than an alternative proposal.

Some have argued that I'm naive (or worse) for speaking out in favor of the proposal, but those folks didn't grow up with the last crank phone system in America. I did. Maybe they should spend some time on wrong side of the digital tracks.

Despite assertions there could be a rational engineering fix to the GPS receiver issue, regulators and political pressure effectively halted the initiative outright. With it, they nixed my hope for rural broadband expansion.

Or so it seemed.

However, the FCC recently opened public comment on an innovative public-private use of spectrum. In its license modification application, LightSquared gives up its terrestrial use of the 10MHz of spectrum closest to the GPS spectrum band. Instead, it proposes to share a 5 MHz band with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- a band that is adjacent to spectrum the company is already allowed to use and much farther away from the GPS band.

As spectrum is a finite public resource, it is essential lawmakers and regulators put it to its fullest possible use. This public-private partnership does just that. Certainly technical issues will need to be addressed, but this revised proposal breathes new life into a project that could finally bring reliable, competitive cell phone service and mobile broadband access to rural America.

Who knows? Maybe even the pundits will take notice.

Diane Russell is a Maine lawmaker and was chosen by The Nation magazine as "most valuable state representative" in its 2011 Progressive Honor Roll.