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 GPS in Peril: an Update

Special Report for Duckworks Magazine
By Gary and Helen Blankenship
click HERE for the original report
click HERE for the first followup report

Saying it would interfere with most GPS units used for navigation, the Federal Communications Commission is taking steps to block plans by a private company to build a high-speed wireless internet system across the United States.

The FCC has announced plans on February 14 to revoke the conditional approval of LightSquared, Inc.’s, request to build 40,000 cell phone ground stations as part of the system. The company planned to use radio frequencies that were next to or near the frequencies used by GPS units.

The company’s plans, and the resulting furor from GPS makers and users, were the subject of two special reports in Duckworks last summer (see links above), as the FCC sought comment after its conditional approval. The coalition opposing those plans, backed by findings of a government civilian and military study group, argued the LightSquared operations would in many cases introduce errors into GPS readings and in other cases obliterate them.

All kinds of GPS units would be affected, according to the preliminary tests, including those used in aircraft, automobiles, boats, and high precision uses, such as in construction and agriculture.

Boat Owners Association of the United States (BoatUS) lauded the decision in a February 16 press release.

"This is a significant development for all GPS users," said BoatUS President Margaret Podlich. "The FCC, as America's guardian of our airwaves, needs to protect the integrity of the GPS system. It is one of the most important, reliable, and critical elements in navigation today - on boats, in the air, and on land."

BoatUS was a member of the coalition opposing the LightSquared plans and also spearheaded its own campaign which the organization said delivered 18,000 comments from concerned boaters to the FCC.

Podlich noted the decision is not final and the FCC is having a 15-day comment period, which ends March 1, on its plans to revoke LightSquared’s conditional permit.

The FCC decision came after the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunication and Information Administration reported to the FCC that its tests showed the LightSquared’s proposed operations would “. . . cause harmful interference to the majority of general navigation GPS receivers tested,” according to the BoatUS release.

The tests also showed receivers of the signals -- smart phones, pad computers, laptops, and the like -- could also interfere with GPS navigation.

The decision apparently is a major blow to LightSquared. A Reuters wire service story written in the wake of the FCC action quoted some observers as speculating LightSquared could be forced into bankruptcy, although the hedge fund manager providing much of the company’s financing denied that.

That manager, Philip Falcone, of Harbinger Capital Partners, would only say the company had a plan for dealing with the FCC decision. LightSquared issued a statement criticizing the FCC decision has harming U.S. competitiveness by delaying a wireless high speed Internet system that would serve neglected rural areas as well as urban areas.

According to the Reuters story, LightSquared late last year halted work on the wireless system until the FCC made a decision.

© 2012, Gary and Helen Blankenship