LightSquared Broadband Plan Questioned by GPS Experts

NEWS ANALYSIS: A DOT official's testimony in a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing called LightSquared’s data plan completely incompatible with GPS. There has also been a call for new GPS interference standards.

The House Subcommittee on Aviation, which is part of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the U.S. House of Representatives, held hearings Feb. 8 regarding the critical nature of GPS to aviation in the United States, and the issues raised LightSquared€™s plans to implement a broadband data service on frequency band adjacent to the country€™s GPS signal. The hearing was intended to determine whether legislation is required to protect GPS from interference by LightSquared or similar uses that could prevent GPS receivers from working properly.

€œLightSquared€™s proposals are fundamentally incompatible with GPS use,€ said John Porcari, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

During his testimony, Porcari said that LightSquared€™s original and its many revised plans all adversely affect GPS, and that researchers have not been able to find a way to mitigate the interference. Porcari added that most aircraft, including airliners, use GPS in a variety of ways, including basic navigation, terrain avoidance, precision landing and efficient routing. He said that losing GPS would cost the federal government and the economy billions of dollars.

Pocari testified that the LightSquared proposals should not go forward, and he said that the DOT would work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to develop standards for avoiding GPS interference in the future. He said that the standards would let future users of the spectrum know in advance what uses would and would not be compatible with GPS.

Meanwhile, LightSquared has filed a declaratory ruling that commercial GPS receivers are not deserving of legal protection from interference from LightSquared€™s data service. If the Federal Communications Commission made such a ruling, it would effectively declare that GPS users, including the airlines, emergency services and ordinary users would have no recourse when they couldn€™t use their GPS devices for navigation, surveying, timing or all of the other users that have been developed for GPS.

The FCC has just announced hearings on that motion.

LightSquared€™s motion, combined with another motion asking the FCC to establish GPS receiver standards, would effectively remove LightSquared from the regulatory process. In other words, if the FCC issues the declaratory ruling that LightSquared wants, then it will be free to begin operations immediately, because the GPS receivers won€™t have any right to be protected.

The interference from LightSquared€™s proposed network was the primary reason for the subcommittee hearings, and the danger to GPS was the primary point of the discussion.

While the Aviation Subcommittee limited the scope of the hearings to items involving aviation, speakers at the hearing repeatedly made reference to the FCC€™s unwillingness to bring the issue to an end, and repeatedly criticized the €œapprove first, then test€ method of handling LightSquared€™s application to operate. The speakers called on the FCC to rescind the approval. One speaker noted, €œThere€™s just one regulator in Washington who doesn€™t seem to get it.€

The Aviation Subcommittee hearing is just one in a series of calls for the FCC to terminate the LightSquared plan for a terrestrial data system operating on frequencies near enough to GPS to keep it from working. While LightSquared€™s plan was originally presented as a satellite-based system supplemented in a few spots by ground stations, it has now morphed into a terrestrial system with more than 40,000 high-power transmitters that effectively would keep GPS from working in the United States.

The fact is that, despite LightSquared's many protests, the company€™s proposed data system would prevent tens of millions of GPS users from being able to use their devices. As you can imagine, Congress is well aware that those tens of millions of GPS users, many of whom have multiple devices that they depend on daily, are also voters.

But what€™s equally important is that despite its claims to the contrary, LightSquared has done a classic bait-and-switch. It started by proposing a use for the frequencies to which it has a license that would work with GPS, then changed it to one that wouldn€™t. Testing conducted by LightSquared and the government has confirmed this. But now, due to some poorly managed follow-on testing by the military, LightSquared has the chance to claim that the government isn€™t playing fair.

But LightSquared isn€™t playing fair either. The company knows that its plan to make money is placed squarely on the backs on tens of millions of GPS users. Worse, it knows that its plan will cost lives as search and rescue operations go astray, and as terrain avoidance systems in aircraft that depend on GPS and which have drastically reduced airplane crashes are rendered useless.

LightSquared, in thinking that Congress will sit quietly by and let this happen is politically tone deaf to an astonishing degree. Despite its willingness to spread money around, LightSquared doesn€™t control many votes, and it€™s trying to do something that will upset tens of millions of voters. Ultimately, Congress will figure this out, and if the FCC doesn€™t act to kill the LightSquared plan, then Congress should (and probably will) do it for them.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...