FAA Gives LightSquared More Testing Time, on Its Alternate Frequency

 - September 30, 2011, 11:05 PM

To the puzzlement of the GPS community and independent radio propagation experts, the FCC ruled on September 13 that LightSquared should conduct further tests of its signal transmissions on its alternate, lower L-band frequency farther removed from the GPS frequency. Tests on a LightSquared frequency closer to GPS earlier this year produced extreme interference. The puzzlement arises because GPS engineers and propagation experts had already agreed that the alternate frequency–the second in a pair owned by LightSquared in the L-band spectrum–would produce almost equally poor results, and would be particularly disruptive to precision GPS receivers. While relatively few tests were performed on the alternate frequency, the specialists are certain that more tests would add little to what they already know. “We’ve been there, done that,” said one.

In Washington, an FAA observer speculated to AIN that the FCC really had no choice in making its decision, however unrealistic it appears. “They couldn’t say that LightSquared must move out of L-band completely, because that would force the company to buy very expensive frequencies outside L-band that it might not be able to afford within its current financing. On the other hand, there are political interests that are telling the FCC to find some way out of this dilemma, because the company cannot be allowed to fail. So call this a stop-gap measure which may last a while.”

Freedom of Information requests to the FCC to see correspondence between the commission and LightSquared have been refused and, more recently, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski refused to testify on the subject before the House Armed Services Committee.

Interference Fixes

Since the debate about potential GPS interference from LightSquared’s service began, LightSquared has doggedly maintained its position that the interference problems are the direct result of the GPS industry’s earlier refusal to incorporate DOD-mandated interference-rejecting filters in their units. In fact, industry experts state that the DOD merely recommended, not mandated, that step, which in any event could never reject signals anywhere near the power of LightSquared’s transmissions.

Since the FCC announcement, LightSquared told one reporter in the non-technical press that it is now working with a small company that had developed a method of rejecting interference. An aviation newsletter followed up by speculating that at some time in the future, pilots might have the option of buying a LightSquared GPS aircraft receiver instead of one built by, say, Garmin or Rockwell Collins. Best of luck on that, said one industry engineer.

In the Internet broadband marketplace, things were looking up for LightSquared in mid-September, when it signed its 14th contract to carry packaged promotional material nationwide for a regional broadcaster. Assembling such future commitments is a key element in demonstrating that the company’s proposed services will meet an as yet unfulfilled national need.

On the electro-political front, however, things were moving in a less favorable direction. A confidential briefing on the LightSquared/GPS situation presented to the DOD and White House senior staff by Air Force Space Command chief General William Shelton was said to have been leaked to LightSquared. This is suggested to have caused the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to encourage the general that he should include words of support for the President’s broadband plan, and also state that the GPS interference was expected to be resolved within 90 days. The general declined both suggestions, and LightSquared denied instigating the White House request.

Meanwhile, in mid-September the media started to suggest similarities between LightSquared and Solyndra, a California solar panel manufacturer that received a $535 million loan guarantee from the federal government, despite warnings of the company’s financial difficulties. Under the loan guarantee’s rather unusual terms, the company’s owners, rather than the taxpayers, could keep the money even if it went into bankruptcy, which it did, shortly afterwards. There appeared to be no similarity between LightSquared and Solyndra, but one analyst was reported to have seen a LightSquared allocation of $10 billion listed in President Obama’s proposed Stimulus 2–an amount not far from the reported $8 billion cost to LightSquared of obtaining access for its transmitter equipment in Sprint’s nationwide infrastructure.