LightSquared and GPS can coexist

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When initial testing showed interference with GPS devices, LightSquared went back and revised its plan, moving to spectrum that is farther away from the GPS spectrum. We have essentially created a buffer that eliminates interference for 99.5 percent of all devices, including all mass consumer GPS devices like those in your car’s navigation system and cell phones. That new deployment plan cost LightSquared $100 million.

That’s where I come in. I am a founder of GPS precision technology, pioneering devices for GPS maker Trimble , now one of the leading voices in the LightSquared opposition in the 1980s-90s. I left Trimble years ago, and now run a company in Silicon Valley that sells high-precision GPS devices to government agencies, including the Army Corp of Engineers, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Air Force.

Last month, I partnered with LightSquared to develop a technical solution for the small number of remaining high-precision devices that would still have interference issues. Despite the GPS industry’s claims that it would take 10 years and tens of billions of dollars to find an engineering solution, I found a technical solution in a few weeks, using existing technology and off-the-shelf materials. LightSquared has pledged an additional $50 million to retrofit the government’s high-precision devices with this fix.

This is a substantial concession to government because all existing government devices are already semi-obsolete and will need to be replaced when the modernized GPS signals are deployed.

Lost in the political hysteria is a crucial point: LightSquared’s spectrum does not emit signals into GPS’s spectrum. The company invested nearly $10 million in filtering technology to ensure that its signal dropped off a cliff before it crossed into GPS’ spectrum. Through a series of regulatory actions in the early 2000s, the GPS industry was told it needed to develop filtering technology for its devices so that they wouldn’t interfere with neighboring spectrum, but they failed to make these innovations.

The GPS industry and its friends in Washington persist in their opposition, scaring Americans into believing that LightSquared’s signal will “jam” GPS, therefore dropping airplanes from the sky. Nonsense.

The military has always claimed that its own precision devices were battle-hardened and resilient to sophisticated enemy jammers. But now the Pentagon is suggesting that a commercial operator like LightSquared can flip a switch and disable the U.S. defense system? Enemy jammers can be much closer to the GPS band and much more sophisticated than the benign signal format of a civilian signal like LightSquared. Surely, military receivers must have protections currently available for civilian GPS receivers that would prevent this.

Former FCC official Michael Marcus, a spectrum use expert, also recognizes this incongruity and wrote in his blog: “Is this all it takes to disrupt the military’s multibillion dollar critical investment in GPS that is so critical to our national security? If so, there is an urgent problem at hand and it is not just the LightSquared issue, it is the extreme fragility of military GPS systems! More likely, however, is that the proposed system will have no impact on military users but that the whole GPS community is ‘circling the wagons’ in an ‘all for one, one for all’ strategy to protect a few GPS manufacturers who made odd design decisions in their receivers…”

So why does the GPS opposition continue, even though a technical solution exists? Because even though LightSquared has committed $160 million to solving an interference problem not of its making, the GPS industry wants to keep them out of the marketplace and avoid paying any amount to retrofit the very small number of high-precision devices used in the commercial construction, agriculture, surveying and other industries that would still have interference problems. A simple retrofit to upgrade a device will not only ensure it’s compatible with neighboring signals, but that it also won’t become obsolete when government initiates the satellite modernization program.

The precision GPS industry has to battle interference every day, especially in crowded in urban markets, and we develop fixes. Once again, we have seen that a so-called intransigent technological problem can be solved with smart engineering.  That solution came quickly from the private sector, and it allows GPS and LightSquared to peacefully co-exist. 

Technology has solved the problem, now we just have to wait for the politicians to catch up.

Dr. Javad Ashjaee is president and CEO of JAVAD GNSS Inc. based in San Jose, California.