Clearly impatient with the way the company’s plan for its nationwide broadband Internet project is becoming further and further delayed by opposition from the GPS user community, several federal government departments, members of Congress and, reportedly, within the FCC bureaucracy itself, a LightSquared spokesman threatened a legal counter offensive during a conference call to reporters. “If it is impossible to get a decision on this that allows us to go forward, I think our way forward is pretty clear, that we then have to insist on our legal rights,” stated Jeffrey Carlisle, LightSquared’s vice president of regulatory affairs and public policy. “If you have to be the bad guy, and go out and start...insisting on your property line, well, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Sue Whom and for What?
The question is, whom would LightSquared sue, and for what? What exactly are its present “legal rights”? It can hardly sue the FCC, a government body that appears not to have broken any of its rules to LightSquared’s disadvantage. Quite the contrary: the GPS industry and users claim that the FCC has bent its own rules in some of its decisions, allegedly at LightSquared’s request. However, so far the FCC has not changed its position that it will not grant operational approval to LightSquared until the company can demonstrate that such operations do not interfere with GPS.
Can LightSquared sue the GPS industry, or individual members of the GPS community? Again that seems unlikely. None appears to have committed any offense against LightSquared, having simply acted in the same way as house owners in a subdivision would object to having a heavy industrial plant built in their neighborhood. More specifically, the GPS community includes several government departments, including Defense, Transportation and its FAA element, NASA, Commerce and many others, all of whom have raised strong objections to LightSquared’s plans.
In any event, it appears that while a legal case can be made when devices transmit on frequencies assigned to others, no case can be made against manufacturers of GPS units that don’t transmit and are designed to receive specific signals but are susceptible to interference from other sources. On the other hand, it has been suggested that if, in the end, LightSquared is unable to prevent GPS interference, it can sue to be compensated for its loss of income anticipated from the contracts it has already signed with customers for its future services. That is clearly also a non-starter, since the FCC’s authorization to proceed was conditional on LightSquared’s demonstrating that it created no interference to GPS. It would be interesting to learn what escape clauses LightSquared has included in its own customer contracts.
Further Tests Required
The LightSquared-sponsored tests in the Las Vegas area and simultaneous DOD and industry tests at Holloman AFB, N.M., in April showed conclusively that GPS receivers of all types were seriously affected, with many simply unusable, when located within a few miles of a prototype LightSquared transmitter operating at roughly half power in the “upper” part of the radio spectrum’s L-Band, close to the GPS frequency.
LightSquared responded to the results by stating that it had a second transmit frequency that was in the “lower” part of L-Band, significantly farther away from the GPS frequency, where it claimed that 99.5 percent of GPS receivers would be unaffected by interference. Unfortunately, the 0.5 percent of the user community that would be affected was the group that operated highly advanced–and expensive–ultra-sensitive precision GPS receivers used in surveying, construction and agriculture, and also by the DOD and other government departments. It is estimated that there are between 750,000 and 1 million precision GPS devices in use by government and the private sector, with the government said to have “tens of thousands” of precision GPS receivers.
However, the FCC noted that similar tests would have to be performed at the lower frequency, as well. No date has been set for those tests, but it appears that while they will evaluate interference effects on precision receivers, a number of lower cost, non-precision units would also be included. These will typically be handheld and vehicle receivers used by the general public and by emergency service vehicles such as ambulances, police cars and fire equipment, which earlier lost GPS signals near the LightSquared transmitter. LightSquared is expected to place its transmitters in urban downtown areas if/ when it begins service.
How much will GPS receiver filters cost, to prevent LightSquared interference? So far, the company has given three answers to that question. After the Las Vegas tests, LightSquared CEO Sanjay Ahuja stated that interference could be prevented by a $0.30 filter. Later, Ahuja’s chief salesman corrected his boss, pointing out that they would actually cost $0.05. One could only imagine something like a postage stamp, where you licked the back and slapped it on the outside of the GPS unit, with no wires to connect. But at a time when it costs approximately $50 for a qualified technician just to take the lid off an avionics box to look inside, LightSquared’s figures were ludicrous, and were obviously aimed at gullible media reporters, potential investors and pandering politicians.
It was only after LightSquared retained GPS receiver expert Javad Ashjaee this year that realism entered the picture, and Ashjaee told a technical meeting that his filters would cost $300 to $400 (later upped to $800). Ever the promoter, Ahuja subsequently announced that interference had been solved, and that filters would cost from $50 to $300. Unfortunately, Ahuja forgot to add that Ashjaee had only quoted a price for receivers from his company, Javad GNSS. Many other companies build precision GPS units, but they have remained largely silent about developing interference filters for their own equipment, or their likely costs. It seems doubtful that those other companies would want to simply install Javad’s filters in their units, for proprietary, compatibility, warranty and other reasons. That would be like expecting Rockwell Collins to accept and install a radar modification from Honeywell.
Yet LightSquared has stated, while perhaps inadvertently displaying its GPS naïveté, that it will cover the cost of modifying all federal government-owned precision GPS units–that is, regardless of manufacturer–against interference, which could turn out to be an incautious and potentially costly move. For the non-government precision GPS community, this means that all modified GPS models–or at least, those that can be modified–must be tested to confirm their performance has not been compromised, and that they still meet industry precision standards. Further, not all precision GPS units are born equal. For example, Javad has stated that it expects to have a small quantity of its filter-modified standard units ready early next year, but it will take the company a further six months to develop filters for its own GPS timing receivers.
GPS timing equipment is a class above the normal precision units, and used where absolute performance is demanded, such as in national laboratories and, interestingly, in control of banking systems, down to the lowliest ATM. These systems will obviously have to be tested rigorously after modification, since a single incorrect digit could be extremely costly to the banking industry. Remember also that FAA certification of avionics that would follow FCC approval is an additive, long and exacting process, and will further delay aviation acceptance. All this is undoubtedly of concern to LightSquared.
LightSquared is not offering to cover the cost of modifying non-government-owned receivers, to which the Coalition to Save GPS has responded, “If and when solutions are available, LightSquared must accept responsibility for paying to replace the existing base of existing equipment with new products.” Here, the Coalition is referring to the millions of personal GPS devices of different makes and models for which LightSquared has not even discussed solutions. They also fit into the FCC’s requirement that any solution offered must be immune to interference and jamming in the urban areas where they will be mainly used.
The company has experienced a number of unexpected delays in its plan.
First, it clearly had poor technical advice about the level of interference its transmitters would create.
Second, it badly underestimated the opposition that would bring from private and government users, and from Congress.
Third, risks that it did not anticipate a year ago are now looming larger, and could become critical.
These risks, in possibly increasing seriousness, are threefold:
• Reported cash-flow issues, due to nervousness among investors about growing yet unsubstantiated perceptions that LightSquared is somehow similar to, and even connected with, the Solyndra solar panel bankruptcy, following that company’s $535 million government loan guarantee.
• Internet competitor Dish Network has recently filed a plan with the FCC to build a nationwide broadband network, using frequencies outside L-Band and thereby completely avoiding GPS interference. Industry analyst Tim Farrar is quoted as stating, “Dish is now in a perfect position to replace LightSquared as the FCC’s favored option for providing additional wireless competition.” That would be a solution that the GPS community would unquestionably support.
• The present uncertain political climate could see a change in the administration. That would undoubtedly have an effect on projects such as LightSquared, which is currently seen as being strongly favored by the Obama government. Also, FCC chair Genechowski–an Obama friend and LightSquared’s “champion” at the agency–reaches the end of his term in November 2012.
How will it all end?
Obviously, no one knows. But it’s undeniable that LightSquared didn’t expect it would be this difficult.