As a rule of thumb, marine electronics manufacturers assume that nearly every boat on the water carries GPS in one form or another, and that effectively gives boaters membership in a larger group called the “GPS community.” The group found its voice for the first time this year in the face of a common enemy.
Backed by a hedge-fund billionaire, a company called LightSquared wants to build a 4G broadband communications network, and the Federal Communications Commission has given its initial approval. GPS manufacturers and users are horrified, believing that LightSquared’s plan would disrupt navigation on land and sea and in the air.
Early in 2011, the debate was a Washington rarity, more like a science lesson than a battle between Democrats and Republicans. As the end of the year approaches — and the 2012 election draws nearer — the GOP is accusing the Obama administration of “crony capitalism,” alleging that LightSquared’s billionaire backer, Philip Falcone, received preferential treatment as a reward for his financial support of Democratic causes.
Garmin International, which has more GPS products in use in the United States than all other manufacturers combined, is leading the charge against LightSquared. In a 72-page filing with the FCC, Garmin’s Washington lawyers concluded that the “operation of LightSquared’s proposed broadband terrestrial network will cause catastrophic harm to GPS service, and this potential harm cannot be mitigated in any practical manner.”
BoatUS, Garmin, fellow GPS giant Trimble Navigation and dozens of other organizations and individuals from the GPS community responded by founding the Save Our GPS Coalition to lobby against LightSquared in Washington. BoatUS hand-delivered 15,000 member comments critical of LightSquared to the FCC in July.
“It is unimaginable that the federal government, the guardian of the bandwidth, would consider approving a proposal with so many problems and grave public safety consequences,” says BoatUS president Margaret Podlich. “Any degradation of the GPS signal will shake the confidence of recreational boaters in the nation’s GPS-reliant search-and-rescue systems.”
A changed business plan
LightSquared is backed by Falcone’s Harbinger Capital, which has risked nearly $3 billion of its $7 billion in managed assets on the venture. In 2004, LightSquared received the authority to operate a satellite voice-and-data service that would be augmented by “ancillary” ground stations. The idea was that handsets for the LightSquared network would be dual-mode (containing satellite and cellular transceivers) and that the ground stations would serve customers in places where satellite signals were blocked — tunnels or big buildings.
The controversy began last fall when LightSquared petitioned the FCC to modify its authority for a satellite network to accommodate a new business plan to become a broadband wholesaler. It asked for permission to offer wholesale service using ground-based only devices, rather than integrating satellite and terrestrial services. In January, the FCC granted LightSquared the waiver it needed on the condition that the plan did not interfere with GPS systems.
GPS signals for boating and other civilian uses are transmitted in the GPS L1 Band at 1559-1610 MHz. This band is directly adjacent to the L-Band frequencies LightSquared is proposing to use at 1525-1559 MHz. Until the FCC waiver, the latter had been reserved for space-to-Earth signal transmissions.
Satellites get their power from solar panels. GPS transmissions need a very quiet interference environment because they must transmit a signal more than 12,000 miles using just 50 watts or less of power — the power of a single light bulb. GPS receivers are designed to be extremely sensitive so they can lock on to these whispered signals and use a wide bandwidth.
Compared with GPS, LightSquared’s ground transmissions will be like screams, according to Garmin lawyer Anne Swanson. “LightSquared’s power is predicted to be 96 dB higher than GPS. That translates to a LightSquared signal that is 4 billion times stronger than a GPS,” she wrote in a pleading to the FCC on behalf of Garmin. She also argued that even a LightSquared handset might interfere with nearby GPS devices because of the proximity of their bandwidths.
When the FCC granted its conditional waiver, it ordered the formation of a “technical working group,” co-chaired by LightSquared and the Global Positioning System Industry Council, to study the interference problem and make recommendations to mitigate potential interference to GPS devices. After testing 130 devices, the working group reported in June that LightSquared had the potential to cause significant interference for GPS receivers in cars, boats, agricultural equipment and, perhaps most significantly, aircraft.
The working group — GPS experts from around the United States — told the FCC that LightSquared’s plan was “incompatible with aviation GPS, absent significant mitigation.” The authors of the working group’s FCC report wrote: “For the originally defined LightSquared spectrum deployment scenarios, GPS-based operations are expected to be unavailable over entire regions of the country at any normal operational aircraft altitude.”
The Air Force, FAA and international air safety organizations agreed and urged the FCC to keep LightSquared offline until solutions were found. LightSquared responded by proposing three remedies. It would operate at a lower power level than its FCC authorization permits, forgo transmitting in sections adjacent to the GPS band and would share the cost of underwriting technical solutions.
The ‘filter’ debate
LightSquared said a new filter in GPS devices would solve the interference problem and argued that the GPS industry had been sloppy in its product design. Opponents balked, saying no such filter exists, not even as a prototype, and that even if it did it would necessarily filter out portions of the GPS signal as well as the LightSquared interference. In October, LightSquared called a press conference to show off a prototype filter developed by Javad GNSS that would cost between $50 and $300 per device and solve the problem.
“LightSquared has, as usual, oversimplified and greatly overstated the significance of the claims of a single vendor to have ‘solved’ the interference issue,” The Coalition to Save Our GPS says in a statement.
Even if the filter worked as advertised, it would be impractical to retrofit the estimated 100 million GPS devices in use across the United States. LightSquared has offered to spend tens of millions of dollars upgrading U.S. government GPS units with the necessary filters, but that would still leave out everyone else with current GPS models, including boaters. “We have not made an offer to swap out all the devices in the known universe,” says Terry Neal, LightSquared’s senior vice president of communications.
Sandy Daugherty is one of thousands who have criticized LightSquared in comments to the FCC, and he has gone online to urge others to do so. Daugherty is a catamaran sailor with solid credentials, having retired as a Navy pilot, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and a sailing coach at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“The stark reality is that there are no filters that can pick out the sound of a cricket at a heavy-metal concert. Both noises span a range of frequencies and the relative volumes are overwhelming,” Daugherty says. “LightSquared seems to be perpetuating the myth that this cheap filter will just plug in somewhere in a precision instrument. Sorry, but there is no slot that says, ‘Insert filter here.’ At best, each instrument will need a modified motherboard, which is seven-tenths the cost of the unit when you consider the required electronic circuit design, promulgation and manufacturing stages of modifying an existing device.”
As the critics pile on, LightSquared continues to sign partners in its bid to compete against Verizon and AT&T for 260 million wireless subscribers. In August, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said his agency was continuing to explore remedies that would satisfy LightSquared and the GPS community. The FCC has set no deadline for its decision.
Because the FCC waiver was unusual for having redesignated bandwidth historically reserved for satellite signals for a terrestrial network, a growing chorus of critics has suggested that the agency was influenced by Falcone’s contributions to congressional campaigns and President Obama. In a June profile of the hedge fund manager, Vanity Fair magazine addressed that issue and published a response from Falcone, who said, “We neither asked for nor received special treatment from the FCC.”
The article went on to quote an unnamed “industry investor” who defended Falcone: “He’s not gaming the rules. He read where the FCC is trying to go. The FCC is abetting him with open eyes.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.