Death knell for LightSquared?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After long and detailed — and often contentious — efforts to work out a safe way for LightSquared to build a network of about 40,000 land-based towers in the U.S. for high-speed wireless transmissions without interfering with GPS, the battle seems to be nearing a satisfactory conclusion for general aviation and others using GPS.

The Federal Communication System is expected to rescind a conditional waiver issued to LightSquared last year after it was informed on Feb. 14 by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that there is no practical way to prevent interference of GPS frequencies from the planned LightSquared network. Industry observers note this could be a death knell for LightSquared’s plan.

A condition of the waiver was that LightSquared had to provide its proposed LTE network wouldn’t interfere with frequencies used by GPS.

Those who depend on GPS, including general aviation, immediately objected to the waiver, especially after testing consistently showed that LightSquared’s transmissions interfered with GPS. One test showed it interfered with 75% of GPS navigation devices.

LightSquared officials argue that the manufacturers of GPS equipment rigged the tests, using special or obsolete devices that would show interference, as well as not including filters that could prevent the interference. In a prepared statement, LightSquared officials said the FCC should take the NTIA’s recommendation “with a generous helping of salt.”

The FCC won’t make a final decision until it has heard public comments, which should begin soon.

Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, welcomed the FCC’s decision as another example of the growing recognition of general aviation and the value of all flying.

“Pilots use GPS in all phases of flight from takeoff through landing, and GPS-based approaches permit all-weather access to some 2,000 airports not served by ground-based systems,” he said. “Ongoing work to modernize our air traffic infrastructure will only increase our reliance on GPS, so keeping the system accessible and free from interference is critical to ensuring that we continue to have the safest aviation system in the world.”

GPS is the basis for the Next Generation Air Transportation System, commonly known as NextGen, which will replace radar with satellites. The FAA and the aviation industry have already invested more than $8 billion in NextGen.

Long-term planning and contracting for development of NextGen has been slowed because of the disputes between the Senate and the House over union voting in transportation businesses and other issues that prevented long-term financing since 2007. Those disputes led to 23 short-term extensions in the agency’s funding. A long-term reauthorization bill finally hammered out and recently signed by the president includes $11 billion for NextGen.

Worries about LightSquared’s plan and possible interference with GPS led to a recent House Aviation Subcommittee hearing focusing on GPS use in aviation safety. John Porcari, Deputy Secretary of Transportation, testified as to the importance of GPS, citing its value not only to travel but also to first responders, search and rescue, resource management, weather tracking, earthquake monitoring, national security, and critical infrastructures such as dams and power plants, surveying and mapping, and industries like precision agriculture, which saves American farmers up to $30 billion a year. Porcari said the FAA intends to work with NTIA to draft new GPS interference standards, adding the agency has already spent $2 million testing LightSquared’s network.

Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), chairman of the subcommittee, declared he was pleased with the protective plan Porcari said the FAA and the Department of Transportation will pursue to protect GPS. He added that “efforts must be made to ensure aviation safety and efficiency benefits made possible by the GPS system are preserved.”

Also testifying at the hearing was AOPA’s Fuller, who warned that interference with GPS signals could jeopardize use of the fundamental technology in airspace modernization efforts, pointing out that there is no viable backup system in the event GPS becomes inaccessible to general aviation.

Although definitely on a positive path, the fight between aviation interests and LightSquared over GPS is not totally settled as LightSquared has indicated it continues to struggle for a solution. But if the FCC restriction follows through, LightSquared might have to cancel its plans for a $14 billion dollar wireless system.

 Charles Spence is General Aviation News’ Washington, D.C., correspondent.

 

 

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Comments

  1. AOPA is missing the fact that the LightSquared network and others like it would be tremendously useful to pilots. While there is a chance that someone’s crappy old GPS have problems, it would be easy enough to test and find a work around. I think the benefits of a fully WiFi connected cockpit would far outweigh the costs. In fact the FAA ought to scrap ADS-B altogether in favor of broadcasting and receiving information via secure Internet connection.

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