U.S. House Committee Vote Stalls FCC Approval of LightSquared Broadband

News Analysis: The U.S House Appropriations Committee votes to block the FCC from approving LightSquared's plan for wireless broadband Internet services after multiple federal agencies voice fierce opposition because of interference with GPS navigation systems.

The powerful U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee voted June 23 to insert language into a spending bill that would block the Federal Communications Commission from spending any money approving LightSquared's plan to launch a controversial Long-Term Evolution broadband system until concerns about interference with GPS signals are resolved.

If the entire spending measure is ultimately approved by the House and Senate and then signed into law, the FCC is effectively barred from any further consideration of LightSquared's plan since even meeting to discuss the plan spends federal funds through employee salaries. In short, until LightSquared comes up with a plan that completely protects all existing GPS navigation devices from any interference, the company cannot operate its satellite-based broadband service.

The hearings, held June 23, were marked by strong opposition from the U.S. military and other agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, which testified that the LightSquared plan would prevent the use of GPS in critical applications. According to the testimony, the U.S. Coast Guard would be unable to perform search and rescue operations, airlines would be unable to use GPS in landings at airports and other services would have their defense missions compromised.

Industry groups were even more strongly opposed to the LightSquared plan, suggesting that the use of an adjacent band by powerful transmitters would never be made to work without GPS interference. While representatives from LightSquared said that the problem could be solved by adding filters to affected GPS receivers, representatives of the GPS industry said that such filters don't exist and that it would be impossible to retrofit all existing GPS devices.

Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Aviation, and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, held a joint hearing on the topic and expressed great concern about the threat to GPS. "In aviation, there's no room for error," Petri said. Petri also pointed out that the next-generation airspace modernization system depended on GPS and that the LightSquared plan would put that entire program in jeopardy.

Speakers at the hearing included representatives of the Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, the U.S. Coast Guard, Garmin, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Air Transportation Association and LightSquared. The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, a nonprofit corporation that advises on communications and navigation technology and performed the GPS interference testing for the FAA, also testified at the hearing.

Shortly before the hearings, LightSquared announced that it would modify its plans to use only the part of the L-band spectrum also used by GPS, but industry and government speakers said that would not eliminate the interference with GPS. According to a report in Bloomberg, the committees plan to ask theFCC to allow time for thorough testing.

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...