News Analysis: The Obama administration's drive to approve wireless broadband could end up killing most GPS use in the United States.
It's no secret that the Obama administration and the Federal Communications
Commission have been working hard to find ways to deploy wireless broadband
Internet, especially to underserved areas. In general, this is an important
move, since the current crop of broadband providers has shown little interest
in bringing the Internet to rural and economically challenged areas. Because of
this, the FCC's Broadband Plan has resulted in a number of changes in how radio
spectrum is allocated in the United States.
Now, however, in its eagerness to allocate new
frequencies regardless of the impact, the FCC has approved a powerful new
broadband system that uses frequencies immediately adjacent to the existing GPS
frequencies. LightSquared, the company that has been granted the use of these
frequencies, has promised it won't interfere with GPS,
and the FCC has said that it won't allow such interference. But the GPS
industry isn't buying it, and neither are a lot of other groups
The Department of Defense and Department of
Transportation, which are jointly responsible for the GPS
system, have already written to the FCC objecting to this frequency allocation.
However, some believe that the FCC has ignored these concerns.
Objections have also come from a wide number of industry
and user organizations, ranging from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
What everyone is objecting to is that the FCC gave
approval to LightSquared without doing any testing. After it received approval,
LightSquared began installing base stations, and it has already started placing
satellites in orbit. By the time testing takes place-starting in April-the
company will have spent millions of dollars on infrastructure with the approval
of the FCC.
What has everyone so upset is that LightSquared, having
spent the money to get its system running, is unlikely to willingly shut things
down even if later tests find that the interference with the GPS
system is significant. Company officials will likely argue that they have a
right to operate regardless of any interference. They will likely also get a
favorable hearing from the FCC, given that its chairman, Julius Genachowski, is
a close friend and campaign supporter of President Obama, and is a partner with
him in the drive to provide wireless broadband as quickly as possible.
Of course, many will point out that the LightSquared data
solution doesn't actually use the same frequencies as GPS,
and suggest that there's no problem. In reality, the problem is very real. GPS
receivers, especially those in commercial applications, were never designed to
reject interference from adjacent channels. A strong transmitter on a nearby
frequency will cause something called receiver desensitization. This
effectively keeps a receiver, especially a very sensitive receiver such as is
found in GPS devices, from receiving radio
I was able to create this condition by driving with a
selection of portable GPS receivers to areas
near radio and television transmitters. Most of them lost their GPS
signals and were unable to navigate. Only the GPS
receiver built into the car was able to maintain its ability to navigate. The
broadcast transmitters overwhelmed the sensitive receivers in the GPS
devices and rendered them useless.
While the broadcast transmitters were more powerful than
the devices proposed by LightSquared, they were operating nowhere near the GPS
frequencies. Transmitters operating on frequencies immediately adjacent in
frequency will have a similar effect. LightSquared will field about 40,000 of
those transmitters, and it's hard to see how they can avoid effectively
eliminating GPS use in their vicinity for
all but military and some commercial aviation GPS
units designed specifically to reject interference.
Considering how integral GPS
technology has become, it's difficult to see how the FCC can justify this
approval, especially without having insisted on extensive testing first. But
the FCC did just that, and clearly the agency seems to have not taken into
consideration objections from the Defense and Transportation departments. I
don't think it will be any surprise that the FCC plans to move ahead in June
after only the briefest of tests.
Ultimately, this decision by the FCC could lead to chaos
at best, and tragedy at worst. If the end result of the interference is
problems with UPS deliveries and traffic
jams, there will be chaos. If the interference keeps first responders from
responding to emergencies or keeps airliners from navigating safely, there
could be loss of life. Either way, GPS has
become so embedded in everything from cars and cell phones to M2M
communications and modern farming techniques that the economic chaos could be
Unfortunately, the FCC is showing little indication that
it's interested in delaying things for more extensive testing. There are
solutions, such as getting Congress involved, which could happen considering
the widespread opposition and the potential for economic problems. But the
choice by the FCC to approve a potentially harmful technology without testing
it first seems like it's ultimately a lose-lose situation. GPS
users will lose, and then ultimately so will the investors in LightSquared when
at least part of the system is ordered shut down when the interference asserts