Geo Week News

September 9, 2011

LightSquared vs. GPS - update

Yesterday was an important day in the LightSquared vs. GPS battle (for background, see posts here and here). The U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology heard from a number of knowledgable people on LightSquared’s potential interference with GPS, and those testifying couldn’t have painted a bleaker picture, should GPS be adversely affected.

Here’s a brief summary of each speaker’s contribution to the hearing:

• Anthony Russo, Director, The National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing: 

Russo talked a lot about the value of GPS, with the normal stuff about how everyone uses GPS every day (“When you swipe your card at an Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) or your credit card at a gas pump, you are using GPS.”), and about how GPS saves lives. He even told an interesting story I didn’t know about, whereby a Korean civilian airliner was shot down by the Soviets in 1983 because it had strayed off course after taking off from Alaska, which spurred President Reagan to make GPS available to the world. Pretty cool. 

Most interesting, though, was his summation of the testing of LightSquared done by the NPEF. While he thanks LightSquared for their participation, he notes that things could actually be WORSE than the NPEF found (and they found 31 out of 33 sensitive devices were made inoperable by LightSquared’s signals) because they didn’t test with multiple towers, or with handhelds in the area, or with any number of other factors that might come into play in real life. 

To me, that’s fairly damning. 

• Mary Glackin, Deputy Under Secretary, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: 

Again, there’s a great deal about the many public-safety-related ways in which NOAA uses GPS, and all of them are bollocksed by the original LightSquared plan. But then Glackin gets into the impact of even LightSquared’s modified plan (they lop off the top 10 MHz, and reduce the power). It’s still bad:

Unfortunately, the existing data from the interference testing groups, including LightSquared’s own report to the FCC, demonstrates that the new spectrum plan, involving the lower 10 MHz channel, still raises issues for high-precision GPS receivers that feature a wideband design. 

Basically, there are five major wideband GPS programs for NOAA, the most important of which is probably the National Spatial Reference System, which ensures compatibility among maps and surveys. Seems like those kind of need to line up. 

• Dr. Victor Sparrow, Director, Spectrum Policy, Space Communications and Navigation, Space Operations Mission Directorate, National Aeronautics and Space Administration: 

Sparrow is a little more wishy-washy than Russo and Glackin, saying that he understands the president’s directive to be more efficient with spectrum use and that he’s hoping GPS providers can work with LightSquared to figure this all out. And he puts the onus on federal agencies to be “spectrally efficient.”

However, “NASA’s highly successful UAV Synthetic Aperture Radar project recently flew a sophisticated radar to study the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and the impact of the Mississippi River floods on levees and farmland. These UAVs and other aircraft use GPS for navigation. Airborne science flights carrying lidars or altimeters rely on GPS data for all the science measurements they obtained.” (Making lidar plural should not be held against him.)

Finally, “it is clear to NASA that the FCC-imposed condition requiring resolution of GPS interference issues prior to commencing commercial operations has not been satisfied, including by LightSquared’s modified plan of June 30, 2011.”

Then he says some more politician-stuff about “fully supporting” this and that. This is not the type of guy you want to get a yes/no answer out of.

• Peter Appel, Administrator, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Department of Transportation:  

Appel is interesting because he’s the first one to talk a little about why we got into this mess. While he reiterates that all sorts of important DoT programs would be affected, he also notes:

To provide the accuracy necessary for precision navigation, GPS receivers have been designed with a “wide front end” that pick up signals greater than the band authorized for GPS. In order to pick up this wide range of signals, precision receivers also pick up signals from the adjacent band, reserved for Mobile Satellite Service (MSS).  

Then he delivers the understatement of the day: “Until recently, this did not create a conflict.”

He’s also the first to mention GLONASS, Russia’s nominal GPS equivalent, “which operates farther away in frequency from LightSquared.”

How’d that be for a solution? For us to borrow from the Russians!

Appel even goes so far, as no one else really does, to say that the DoT is actually starting a research program to “identify technologies that meet the requirements of NextGen in the event that GPS is disrupted.”

That’s mind-blowing to me. They’re spending money on looking for something other than GPS? That’s the first time it’s occurred to me that GPS might actually be in for it. 

• Dr. David Applegate, Associate Director, Natural Hazards, U.S. Geological Survey: 

Same old stuff in the first part. I’d hate to be the last guy to speak at one of these hearings, because everyone’s working from prepared statements and you end up just saying the same thing as the guy in front of you. Sometimes, though, you can still get off good lines.

Applegate was the first to sneak this one in there: “They would have to revert to navigating by ‘pencil-and-map.'” I’d think that would make a few people sit up and take notice.

We also get some cool stats on lidar: USGS has spent between $18 million and $20 million on lidar every year since 2008, with a high point of $40 million in 2010, thanks to Recovery Act monies.

Heck, they spent $3.5 million on GPS receivers just used for volcano monitoring.

He estimates it would cost about $500 million to replace the receivers currently in use. Though, I guess, for the feds that’s chump change, right?

• Jeffrey J. Carlisle, Executive Vice President, Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy, LightSquared: 

Finally, LightSquared gets to talk. As you might imagine, his remarks are the longest and hardest to summarize remotely succinctly, but I’ll give it a go. 

First, a shot across the bow, to build up a little sympathy: “We find longplanned and long-authorized operations threatened because the manufacturers of GPS devices have been building and selling receivers that ignored rules the FCC established in 2003 and 2005 with their knowledge, and without their opposition.”

Second, he basically says, “hey, we’re spending $14 billion (that’s with a “b”) over here. We’re talking about wireless throughout the whole country at 5-10 megabits a second. That’s pretty frickin’ hot!” He also notes the U.S. is 15th in the world when it comes to broadband access. It’s always smart to play the we’re-falling-behind card. 

Third: Um, we launched a satellite that cost a $1 billion, and basically just let you use it for free when you needed it.

Fourth: Um, you basically said we could do exactly what we’re proposing to do way back in 2005, remember? This isn’t about the emissions. It’s about the receivers, which were designed to do an illegal thing and which isn’t our problem. 

I’ve gotta say, this is fairly persuasive:

In the end, the GPS manufacturers either failed to understand the vulnerability of their own receivers or took the calculated risk that LightSquared would not be able to complete its network. Either way, they did nothing to prepare their receivers or their users for the changed spectrum environment.  

Finally, he goes with his company’s proposal for mitigation:

1. operate at lower power than you said we could back in 2005

2. we won’t use the top 10 MHz, even though we could if we wanted

3. we have a brand-new proposal that will limit power reach the ground to levels that would eliminated interference for 99 percent of the receivers (and he even mentions that it’s the agriculture, surveyors, and scientists that are going to be hosed by this)

4. heck, we’ll even underwrite figuring out how to make those sensitive receivers work right, if the manufacturers refuse to do it themselves


So, where’s that all leave us? The evidence that major government agencies would be seriously affected by LightSquared is there, but I definitely think there’s a door open for LightSquared to go forward. The committee members want to side with them because they want to side with a business that’s spending $14 billion, and siding with government agencies over jobs right now isn’t the best way to win an election in 2012. 

Plus, we’ve even got an agency looking at other options!

My opinion is still that it’s unlikely LightSquared is allowed to go forward without even more concessions, but I’m starting to wonder if the FCC isn’t going to bite on their proposed mitigation plan. 

That’s going to leave a lot of surveyors and lidar users out in the cold with receivers that don’t work and need to be upgraded. Might want to start looking into Plan Bs.

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