Spectrum Wars: Coalition to Save Our GPS vs. LightSquared

This time it isn’t about ham radio spectrum. But it is about something we use extensively in our hobby: GPS.

Browsing the Web today I noticed an ad from LightSquared, a Virginia company that’s in the process of rolling out a terrestrial broadband service in competition with the cellular providers.

So far, so good, right? Well, according to a recent article in The Daily Beast, the Obama administration allegedly pressured Gen. William Shelton to alter his testimony on Capitol Hill where he planned to raise Pentagon concerns about potential GPS interference, making them more favorable toward commercial broadband interests:

According to officials familiar with the situation, Shelton’s prepared testimony was leaked in advance to the company. And the White House asked the general to alter the testimony to add two points: that the general supported the White House policy to add more broadband for commercial use; and that the Pentagon would try to resolve the questions around LightSquared with testing in just 90 days. Shelton chafed at the intervention, which seemed to soften the Pentagon’s position and might be viewed as helping the company as it tries to get the project launched, officials said.

“There was an attempt to influence the text of the testimony and to engage LightSquared in the process in order to bias his testimony,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) said in an interview. “The only people who were involved in the process in preparation for the hearing included the Department of Defense, the White House, and the Office Management and Budget.”

The article raised concerns that the White House’s motivations may have been political. Philip Falcone, a major Democratic donor, runs an investment fund with a substantial stake in LightSquared. While one can speculate about whether politics could have played a role, that’s well beyond the scope of this blog post. I’m more concerned about how LightSquared’s plans could affect hams who use GPS for APRS and other applications.

What’s the worry? Only that LightSquared’s 40,000 ground-based transmitters would overwhelm current GPS receivers rendering them unusable in some situations. Industry officials argue that GPS receivers, especially those designed for consumer use, may not have been built robustly enough to reject interference from adjacent users such as LightSquared. There are many organizations signed on as being in opposition including such diverse interest groups as the FDNY, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and the American Sailing Association.

I remember buying my first GPS.  I remember something else about it: it was expensive. And it didn’t work that well. But it was still a couple hundred bucks.

Fast forward to 2011. GPS devices are cheap and they’re everywhere, integrated into many of the devices we own. We depend on them every day. You can even buy a standalone GPS receiver for under $50.

From a civilian perspective, GPS service is a national resource that deserves protection.  While I’m all for GPS manufacturers tightening up their receiver tolerances when they can do so at a reasonable cost, I don’t think that the public interest is served allowing a company to launch a service that may interfere with legacy GPS devices. LightSquared argues that GPS manufacturers have known that this was coming for a long time.  That may be true, but the losers here will be the consumers — not the manufacturers.

You can view both arguments here:

Coalition to Save Our GPS vs LightSquared

What’s your take on this?

Matt Thomas, W1MST, is the managing editor of AmateurRadio.com. Contact him at [email protected].

5 Responses to “Spectrum Wars: Coalition to Save Our GPS vs. LightSquared”

  • Goody K3NG:

    My take is it’s a problem with GPS receivers. And now I’m going to totally flip-flop and say it’s LightSquared’s problem to deal with. The reality is that it is their problem. The FCC isn’t going to allow X million GPS receivers be obsoleted by this. Bottom line, I wouldn’t get too wrapped around the axle over this.

  • Fred W0FMS:

    ‘Tis BPL the second. Dead before it even begins. 9 years too late by their own admission, too.

    Once the Garmins stop working on I-70, the LightSquared people are toast, whether or not they are “technically” correct or not. I can imagine what the truck drivers will do to their devices.. :O)


  • WA2DYA:

    This has been going on for a year.

    Last November, FCC fast-tracked a Lightsquared license modification allowing a 10 day comment period that included Thanksgiving holiday. Lightsquared was to be allowed operation of 40,000 1.5 kw base stations for a wireless network transmitting on spectrum adjacent to GPS band L1.

    There evidently was no engineering evaluation of the Lightsquared network concerning compatibility with GPS operations. It turns out there’s a signal dynamic range problem causing overload desense of GPS receivers.

    I’m wondering what would have happened if nobody noticed what was happening when Lightsquared lit up all those base stations without warning.

    FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski and President Obama are long time friends. You figure it out.

    — CHAS

  • Glenn DJ0IQ:

    I believe this issue provides more evidence that the FCC does not have the technical expertise to administer their charter. They do seem to be primarily motivated by politics and raising money through spectrum auctions.

    – Glenn DJ0IQ and W9IQ

  • Richard KW0U:

    Over at Aviation eBrief they’ve been running articles on this. It does indeed seem like a combination of FCC incompetence (at best), meeting corporate arrogance. BPL again, as Fred said. Hopefully it will die a quick death, though I doubt if we’ll get off that easy.

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