LightSquared GPS Interference Issue Faces Congressional Oversight

NEWS ANALYSIS: A U.S. defense spending bill signed by President Barack Obama includes provisions that require LightSquared's wireless LTE network to meet congressional guidelines aimed at preventing GPS interference before the Federal Communications Commission can approve its operation.

Buried deep within the500-page-plus National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 is a series of requirements that specify exactly what LightSquared must do before the Federal Communications Commission can authorize operation of its satellite and terrestrial based Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wholesale data service.

The provision, which appears under the Space Activities section of the defense funding bill, prohibits the FCC from permitting any operations that interfere with the military use of GPS in any way. The NDAA, which was signed into law on Dec. 31, 2011, by President Obama, is best known for the controversy surrounding the detention of suspected terrorists.

However, bills such as these typically cover a lot of ground, and the NDAA is no exception. What's notable in this bill is that both theHouse and Senate versions of the bill contained restrictions on GPS interference, and in this case the Conference Committee adopted the strictest provisions of each.

The language of the bill is very specific. "The Federal Communications Commission shall not lift the conditions imposed on commercial terrestrial operations in the Order and Authorization adopted on January 26, 2011 (DA 11-133), or otherwise permit such operations, until the Commission has resolved concerns of widespread harmful interference by such commercial terrestrial operations to covered GPS devices." In this case, covered GPS devices means basically anything used by the military.

In addition to the prohibition of approval, the law also imposes a requirement that the FCC make available to the appropriate House and Senate committees the final Working Group report as mandated by the FCC. It is the Working Group thatconducts the interference testing intended to demonstrate to the FCC that the LightSquared system does not interfere with GPS, or if it does interfere, to what extent. The most recent version of the Working Group report, released late in 2011, showed significant interference with GPS.

The legislation also requires the FCC to report to Congress the commission's final decision regarding whether or not to permit commercial operations of the type LightSquared is proposing. If the FCC decides to permit such operations, it must explain to Congress how it resolved any concerns regarding GPS interference.

In addition to the reporting requirement from the FCC, the NDAA also requires that the Secretary of Defense assess the ability of GPS devices to operate without interference and to determine if commercial operations are interfering with the military's ability to use GPS.

If interference is found, the Secretary of Defense must report to Congress the nature and severity of the interference, circumstances under which the interference occurs, and how this might affect the national security interests of the United States. The Secretary of Defense is also required to report on how the interference will be eliminated or mitigated, and the cost of such plans.

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...