LightSquared Claims Government GPS Interference Tests Were Unfair

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-01-26

LightSquared Claims Government GPS Interference Tests Were Unfair

The people who run LightSquared are not happy campers. Of course, they have plenty of reasons for this particular winter of discontent, but in the case of the military testing of LightSquared's interference with GPS devices, they might have a reason. The government testers, the company claims, haven't been playing fair.

Of course, that's kind of a given. Washington rarely plays fair after all. But in the case of LightSquared and the interference tests, the playing field may have been more than a little slanted. The even bigger problem is we can't find out.

Here's what happened. In January of 2010, LightSquared was given a license to deliver satellite-based Long Term Evolution (LTE) data services to resellers contingent on the service not interfering with GPS. While there have been a series of things that should have happened in different ways, what ultimately ended up happening is a series of tests were conducted in the early summer of 2010 by a committee working under the auspices of the Space-Based Positioning Navigation & Timing National Executive Committee.  

The tests showed that LightSquared's data service when operated as then planned would interfere with GPS receivers, mainly because the adjacent channel interference would overwhelm the receivers that are designed to detect the extremely weak timing signals from GPS satellites. LightSquared changed its band usage to only use that portion of its frequencies farthest away from GPS. The tests were rerun by a government technical group, and that group once again said the LightSquared data delivery system interfered with the GPS receivers being tested-and that there was no remediation possible.

Clearly, things didn't look good for LightSquared. The problem is the company says it couldn't obtain the test results, couldn't learn how the test failed and wasn't even present for the test. Considering that LightSquared engineers were part of the original testing done by the PNT group, this is an unexpected difference, and the rationale hasn't been explained.

Since that time, LightSquared has made its displeasure known to anyone who would listen. The testing, the company claimed, shouldn't have been secret, and it should have tested GPS receivers that were the sort of devices that normal consumers are likely to encounter. Worse, the secrecy was such that LightSquared couldn't even find out what actually happened after the tests were completed.

With all of this going on, a source connected with LightSquared made a series of internal emails available to eWEEK. The emails show a clear series of frustrating communications between a LightSquared executive and the U.S. Air Force Space Command, which is conducting the tests.

First the emails complained to The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) that the testing that the Command was conducting was outside of the parameters agreed to by the test plan set up by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and incorporated a different set of devices.

Test Results Withheld From Public


"Specifically addressing the conducted testing that is underway at SPAWAR, we object to this phase as it is also outside of the process defined by NTIA. This element of Space Command's test program was developed by it alone, without LightSquared even being provided a copy of this part of the test plan," the email complained. The LightSquared executive offered to work cooperatively with SPAWAR in the testing as had been described in the NTIA test plan.

Later, after the testing was complete, LightSquared was apparently left hanging in the dark. The company couldn't get a list of devices, test results or the key codes necessary to tie a particular device to a particular test result, according to one of LightSquared's emails: "Your process inexplicably contained a 14 day waiting period from the time a request was made for the device code key and the time that it would be released under the terms of the non‐disclosure agreements. This was further exacerbated by an unexplained delay on the part of Air Force Space Command in notifying the GPS manufacturers of LightSquared's request. Perhaps it was a coincidence that you finally provided formal notice to the GPS industry on Dec. 11, making the expiration of the 14 day waiting period Christmas day."

In other words, LightSquared was being stonewalled by the Air Force. Since that time, LightSquared has been provided the information it wants, but nobody else can see it. This means that there's no way for outsiders (meaning all media outlets including this one, third-party communications engineers or the general public) to see if LightSquared's claims are right.

By doing this, the government is once again making the whole GPS testing process secret, despite the critical interest of the entire GPS community and millions of consumers. Were the GPS tests rigged as LightSquared claims? Maybe they were. This might explain the refusal of the government to make the testing and the test results public. Right now, everyone who sees those results has to sign a nondisclosure agreement, with severe penalties if they say anything. One wonders just what SPAWAR is trying to hide.

eWEEK is already in the process of filing Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain this information, which is improperly being withheld. In the meantime, what we have learned from people who were present for the testing is that the GPS devices being tested were probably not the receivers used in your car, or by airplane pilots or first responders. It seems, from what we've learned so far, that the Air Force selected the devices most likely to fail the test.

While LightSquared's data service plan has some significant challenges before the service can be launched-challenges it may not be able to overcome-the fact is that the process must be fair, and it must be transparent. Right now, this unnecessary and perhaps illegal secrecy is anything but fair and transparent. 

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