LightSquared harms GPS

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It might be different if Dr. Ashjaee’s sponsor, LightSquared, had a better track record of predicting when technological issues are actually solved.   When it first submitted its new business plan to the FCC last fall, LightSquared insisted its signals could coexist with GPS. Only when, late in the testing process, LightSquared saw test results showing that its transmissions would wipe out GPS signals to hundreds of millions of receivers, did it abruptly propose an entirely different deployment plan, declaring it a “solution” that needed no more testing.   Several more modifications followed, and LightSquared proclaimed each to be a solution.  The NTIA and the FCC recently disagreed and ordered new testing.

After all that, even LightSquared has admitted that its plans would still interfere with GPS receivers used in high-precision applications like aviation, agriculture, transportation, construction and surveying.  So, not surprisingly, LightSquared announced another “solution,” this time from Dr. Ashjaee.  

These latest claims, on their face, greatly oversimplify a big problem.  The GPS industry is a highly complex technological world and solving the interference problems LightSquared poses to GPS is not a one-size-fits-all situation.   The 750,000 to 1 million high-precision GPS receivers now in use in the United States vary widely: there are hundreds of different high-precision devices used in performing thousands of different tasks.

If Dr. Ashjaee’s technology was suitable for this wide universe of GPS receivers, one would expect that his company would have greater market share than its current small portion of the GPS market, and more objective evidence of market acceptance, not just self promotion.   The fact of the matter is that you cannot simply stick one vendor’s “solution” in every other company’s highly engineered, complex and expensive equipment.    

LightSquared also repeatedly oversimplifies economic matters by touting its investment and the thousands of jobs it says it will create. But no amount of investment by LightSquared is worth the economic impact a degraded GPS would cause.  Industries employing more than three million people rely heavily on GPS, and $39 billion worth of GPS equipment was sold last year.  Even based on estimates LightSquared submitted to the FCC, which it has every incentive to minimize, if equipment for high-precision receivers can be proven to be effective it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars just for retrofitting receivers in private hands.

On top of this, the Department of Defense’s top GPS expert has said that even if there was a proven equipment solution for interference, it would take billions of dollars and ten years for DOD to implement any such solution, given all of the complex and critical systems in which GPS equipment is embedded. The FAA has said the same about aviation uses, which prevent aviation accidents and save lives.

Who pays for this?  Not LightSquared, which has only offered $50 million in total to defray any retrofitting costs. 

Dr. Ashjaee admits that his new equipment is only designed to be compatible with lower mobile satellite spectrum bands, based on one of LightSquared’s earlier “solutions” to the interference problem.  But this too appears to be a shell game.  To seek support in Washington, LightSquared downplays its need to use its upper band spectrum, which was shown to cause massive interference, and even (incorrectly) criticized a four star general because he didn’t testify about this “new” lower band plan. 

On Wall Street it sings a different tune – making clear it intends to use the upper band within just a few years, because it needs to for its business plan to work and because it told Wall Street this upper band spectrum is a valuable asset.  If LightSquared does turn on in the upper band, Dr. Ashjaee’s new equipment, and any other GPS equipment designed to accommodate the lower band operations, will become immediately obsolete again, and have to be replaced at a cost of further billions. 

LightSquared has been wrong every step of the way in saying GPS would be safe from interference. Claims by it and vendors like Dr. Ashjaee are only marginally relevant to a true “solution” to the GPS interference problem.  It’s time for LightSquared to stop issuing unsubstantiated “solution” press releases and accept full technical and financial responsibility to protect critical GPS uses.   

Jim Kirkland is vice president and general counsel of Trimble, a founding member of the Coalition to Save Our GPS.