GPS interference puts wireless startup in jeopardy with lawmakers, regulators

LightSquared, a startup company with the backing of billionaire investor Philip Falcone, plans to provide high-speed cellphone service nationwide through a network of satellites and land-based cell towers.

The business has the potential to create thousands of jobs, add a new competitor to the wireless market and expand broadband access.

So, why is it so controversial?

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Despite the potential benefits of its business plan, LightSquared has run into significant opposition from regulators and lawmakers because its network interferes with Global Positioning System (GPS) devices.

These interference problems could undermine the entire company, despite the fact that LightSquared has already invested billions of dollars in its plans.

Lawmakers on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee said at a hearing Thursday that more testing of LightSquared’s network is needed before the company should move forward.

While expanding broadband access is a top priority for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, he said last month that LightSquared will have to fix the interference problems before the FCC will grant it permission to launch its network.

In the last few years, GPS devices have become ubiquitous, helping drivers find their destinations and businesses track their goods.

But GPS is not just convenient; it is also critical to public safety. Pilots rely on it to navigate airplanes and government agencies use it to track hurricanes and other weather patterns. It is also an essential tool for the military.

Significant disruption to GPS devices could wreak havoc on businesses, individuals and the government.

In response to the interference problems, LightSquared agreed to operate its land-based cell towers on only the lower 10 MHz of its spectrum, which is the section of public airwaves that the company has the authority to use.

The move was not a small commitment. According to LightSquared, not using cell towers on the upper 10 MHz will cost the company approximately $100 million.

But that commitment has not been enough to allay concerns about GPS interference.

LightSquared admits that even if it only uses the lower 10MHz, the network will still cause problems for some high-precision GPS devices used in agriculture, mining and scientific research.

The company says these interference issues are not really its fault. The problem is not that LightSquared’s signals are spilling over into the GPS airwaves, the company says. The problem is that the high-precision GPS receivers are “looking into” the airwaves that belong to LightSquared.

According to LightSquared, high-precision GPS operators should modify their receivers to prevent the interference.

But that might be easier said than done.

At the congressional hearing on Thursday, Anthony Russo, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing, said it is unclear whether the technology even exists to prevent serious disruption with high-precision devices.

Part of the problem is that LightSquared’s signals are billions of times more powerful than GPS signals. One expert said comparing the two is like comparing Niagara Falls to a teaspoon of water.

So while regulators and lawmakers have expressed enthusiasm for the potential benefits of LightSquared, its future remains unclear.

"I don't want to face my constituents at a town meeting if their GPS ends up not being what it's supposed to be and what it has been as a result of spectrum interference," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) at Thursday’s hearing.