GPS users continue to fight proposed LightSquared network

 - June 30, 2011, 3:10 AM

The ongoing controversy about whether LightSquared’s proposed network of 40,000 powerful ground-based stations transmitting high-speed Internet across the nation would interfere with adjacent GPS frequencies became more intense last month. Earlier, AIN was informed that virtually all tests approved jointly by LightSquared and the GPS community, with all types of GPS receivers, had experienced interference ranging from erratic performance to complete loss of signals.

On June 15, LightSquared requested that the final report mandated by the FCC on the joint GPS compatibility test program that was due on that day should be delayed for two weeks, because of the volume of still unprocessed test data. In mandating the final report, the FCC required LightSquared to demonstrate, as a condition of granting its ground transmitter network license, that its stations would not interfere with GPS. The FCC allowed the delay.

But long before that, the FCC had received letters opposing LightSquared’s license from both Houses of Congress; the Departments of Defense, Transportation and Commerce; the federal Position, Navigation and Timing Board; the GPS industry council, including NBAA, ATA, ALPA and AOPA; and a large number of individual GPS users. Possibly the most damning assessment came from RTCA, the government advisory body that establishes avionics standards and specifications. RTCA concluded, “Given the situation in the high-altitude U.S. East Coast scenario, GPS-based operations will likely be unavailable over a whole region at any normal aircraft altitude.” It appeared that no one, other than LightSquared itself, supported LightSquared’s license application.

LightSquared’sproposed network would affect non-U.S. operators as well. All foreign aircraft approaching the U.S. would experience GPS interference, causing ICAO to advise the FCC on June 13 that “the potential disruption to aviation use of GPS caused by the LightSquared system would have a far-reaching impact on current and future aviation operations.”

On June 20, LightSquared announced that it would vacate the frequency that caused major GPS interference and move to one farther away, where tests had shown minimum interference, although even there some GPS receivers had difficulties in signal acquisition and sophisticated precision survey receivers would still be affected. Those issues must still be resolved. But on that same day, and with considerable chutzpah, LightSquared showed it wasn’t going away, announcing a 15-year deal with Sprint valued at $20 billion, to develop, deploy and operate LightSquared’s future nationwide network.

A Congressional hearing involving members of both the House and the Senate was scheduled for June 23 to address the LightSquared/GPS issue. At that point, the debate would move from the technical to the political, where LightSquared has undeniable muscle. For example, the President’s 2011 State of the Union message specifically identified the need for nationwide Internet connectivity. The jobs subsequently created to develop and build the vast, $20 billion terrestrial network would certainly please legislators, many of whom will undoubtedly later claim that they “saved” GPS from an untimely end. As always, of course, it depends on one’s perspective.