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LightSquared squares off against GPS worriers

Just what the competition ordered

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The FCC refused to rescind LightSquared's licence over potential GPS interference, so now the general public is being courted in the hope of a less well-informed decision.

"GPS dead zones" are threatened if LightSquared is permitted to go through with its plan to deploy LTE technology in satellite frequencies. Reports, and warnings, from the US Air Force Space Command and New Scientist – to name just two – highlight the way in which GPS will spontaneously fail when LightSquared turns on its network, though none of the reports found space to mention that the FCC licence explicitly states that LightSquared will not be allowed to build anything until any potential for interference is removed.

"Can you even imagine... losing GPS reception every time you drove within range of an LTE tower?" asks Engadget reporting on comments from General William Shelton which were, in turn, motivated by reports from the GPS-kit-manufacturer Garmin, which were quoted by New Scientist, claiming that LightSquared's plans "will result in widespread, severe GPS jamming".

LightSquared has been publicly planning to deploy LTE at satellite frequencies for a year or so, since the FCC stated it was inclined to permit such things as part of the National Broadband Plan. The complaints about possible GPS interference popped up in January, when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) raised concerns about what would happen if LightSquared's wholesale customers were not required to provide satellite-capable handsets.

That has nothing to do with interference of course, LightSquared never intended more than a tiny fragment of its traffic to be satellite-routed, but the NTIA reckons it means more transmitters and thus an unacceptable level of interference. By coincidence, it also has a lot to do with how competitive LightSquared's network will be, and the incumbent operators were not happy when the FCC decided to drop the satellite requirement.

Not that the FCC is being weak in protecting GPS: LightSquared will be operating in neighbouring frequencies, and could generate out-of-band interference enough to interfere with the extremely low-power GPS signals, though the company claims its whizz-bang filters will prevent that. To make sure of that, the FCC requires LightSquared to help create a working group, with makers of GPS kit, to "focus on analysing a variety of types of GPS devices for their susceptibility to overload interference from LightSquared’s terrestrial network of base stations".

That group will need to file a work plan by tomorrow, and will then be required to report to the FCC monthly (PDF – para 41 onwards).

So the chances of interference with GPS are minimal, and subject to constant monitoring, and LightSquared won't be allowed to build a network until the issue has been entirely resolved. Garmin might have demonstrated interference is possible (pdf showing who and how), but it ranks pretty low on the things to worry about.

All of this is moot if LightSquared can't raise the billions of dollars it still needs to build the network. On Wednesday the company reported having raised another $586m but it is still less than halfway to the $7bn it needs (and that figure is by its own reckoning – it could require a lot more than that).

One can't help wondering if putting a little fear and uncertainty into the heads of potential investors, threatening the entire business plan with health-and-safety concerns over GPS interference, isn't just what the existing operators might have asked for. ®

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