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.
LightSquareds GPS Debacle Was Preventable
However, that may be moot after the Appropriations Committee action to block the FCC’s funding for any approval of LightSquare’s plans to operate. The Appropriations Committee passed the funding restriction with strong bipartisan support on a voice vote.
While the funding restrictions on the FCC still have to have Senate approval and need to be signed by the president, the strong support from both parties in the House of Representatives makes it unlikely that the Senate will block this action. At this point, the White House hasn’t said whether the President would sign it. However, opposition to LightSquared’s plan is very strong within the Executive Branch, making it likely that the president would agree.
While it appears that GPS interests have at least won a reprieve, a number things could still happen. The Senate might not approve the House action before the summer recess, and the FCC could issue its approval before Congress returns. Such defiance of congressional intent is rare, but it has happened before. Such an action could have grave consequences for the commissioners who approved LightSquared in the face of clear congressional wishes, which in Washington is virtually a sure way for them to lose their jobs as commissioners.
The sad part of all of this is that it was entirely preventable. The potential for interference with GPS by the LightSquared broadband was known years ago. The necessary testing could have been performed years ago. In the last year, the FCC, possibly bowing to political pressure to find a solution to universal broadband, short-circuited the approval process. It limited hearings to only 10 days, and held responses to 7 days. Then, instead of requiring that testing take place before approval, the FCC voted to approve the LightSqared broadband system, complete with thousands of high-powered ground-based transmitters, immediately.
Eventually, in the face of significant opposition, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski changed his stand and said he’d require that LightSquared prove that they don’t interfere with GPS before he would allow operation. But even this action raises more questions than it answers. Why didn’t the FCC require testing years ago when the chance of interference was first suspected? Why did FCC Chairman Genachowski suddenly decide that this issue was so urgent that he needed to dispense with the usual hearing and response time?
Most of all, why the rush to approve LightSquared’s plan and skip the essential step of testing for interference? The only answer I can think of is that Genachowski was under pressure to do this. But that leads to another question: pressure from whom? Ultimately, that’s the answer that we need from the FCC.
Editor’s Note: The headline of this story was changed to reflect that it was a U.S. House Committee vote to withhold funds from the FCC in a budget bill to effectively forestall approval of LightSquared’s wireless broadband system.