When LightSquared, the company that promises to create a national satellite network for Long-Term Evolution data traffic, suddenly sprang into action at the end of December to demand that the Federal Communications Commission confirm its right to use frequencies that interfere with GPS, it was more than just the company's usual aggressive behavior.
It is, in fact, an effort to get the FCC to act on the company's license application in advance of the signing of the Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012. This bill, which has been approved with strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, contains a provision that prohibits the FCC from approving LightSquared's operation if it interferes in any way with the use of GPS by the military.
"Such approval, in view of the recent test results of the LightSquared network's effect on GPS receivers, would be prohibited by our legislation," said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. "The FCC should take no actions inconsistent with the bipartisan and bicameral position of the Congress that our first goal must be to protect DOD GPS systems."
The LightSquared petition makes a big deal of contrasting GPS receivers as "unlicensed" while pointing out that its service is licensed. The fact is that this is really a smoke screen being raised by LightSquared, which is trying to bolster its position as being the rightful user of its planned frequencies adjacent to the frequencies used by GPS services. First of all, the FCC doesn't normally license radio receivers of any kind, GPS or otherwise. This is why you don't need to get an FCC license for your car radio.
Second, the GPS system is the property of the U.S. government. It was designed and implemented by the U.S. Air Force, and is currently operated by the Air Force and the Department of Commerce. While the service is in use by millions of civilians around the world, its primary purpose is to provide precise location information for the U.S. military and for public safety and law enforcement organizations.
The fact that the government allows civilian use of the system is a boon almost beyond measure that has eased the lives of millions. But ultimately it's a military system.
But in addition to the military purposes, GPS has also been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation as an approved means of aircraft navigation. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration is already in the process of allowing aircraft, including commercial airliners, to fly directly to their destinations, instead of following a complex system of airways developed decades ago when airliners navigated using radio signals from ground stations.