Expert Advice: Thank Your Lucky Stars

March 1, 2012  - By
Eric Gakstatter

Eric Gakstatter

In my 20-plus years of involvement in the GPS/GNSS industry, nothing has come close to the LightSquared debate for technical and political complexity, nor for potential effects on nearly every high-precision GPS/GNSS user in the United States. The industry’s destiny is somewhat controlled by a federal agency that is not very knowledgeable about how, when, and where GPS is used — although I’m sure they’ve learned a lot in the last 14 months.

While receiver manufacturers have a firm grip on the technical complications of what LightSquared proposed, they have jockeyed for market position, as information released to the public is filtered through their marketing heads. Finally, media coverage is all over the place, from “LightSquared is doomed” to “this will happen.”

On January 13, as we all know, the U.S. deputy secretaries for defense and transportation wrote, on letterhead of the Space-Based Positioning Navigation & Timing National Executive Committee (PNT EXCOM), to the head of the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), declaring that “there appear to be no practical solutions or mitigations that would permit the LightSquared broadband service, as proposed, to operate in the next few months or years without significantly interfering with GPS.”

On February 14, the NTIA director wrote to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman in a similar vein with nearly the same language. That same day, the FCC stated its intent to “not lift the prohibition on LightSquared,” and to “vacate the Conditional Waiver Order, and suspend indefinitely LighSquared’s Ancillary Terrestrial Component authority.”

It just so happens that LightSquared cannot accomodate military GPS users nor aviation GPS users. Those of you who use high-precision GPS can thank your lucky stars that the military and aviation folks are standing in your corner. Otherwise, as I warned back in May of last year, high-precision users would have been thrown under the onrushing bus of national broadband.

In testimony to a House of Respresentatives subcommittee meeting on GPS and aviation in early February, the Transportation deputy secretary revealed that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spent more than $2 million of taxpayer dollars with two different independent labs to conclude that LightSquared proposals were not compatible with several GPS-dependent air safety-of-flight systems.

Don’t expect the Department of Defense (DoD) ever to provide similar testimony. The Pentagon played its veto card off-air and out of the public eye.

LightSquared has continued to complain about GPS receivers “looking into our spectrum” as the reason for the interference GPS receivers are suffering. If you missed Richard Keegan’s December 2011 article in GPS World, you should take a look. He succinctly addresses this issue, as I did in my November 2011 Survey Scene column.

As LightSquared has clearly lost the engineering argument, it has taken a very creative approach in an attempt to convince the FCC that this isn’t an engineering problem, but rather all about the FCC rules. LightSquared petitioned the FCC to confirm that “GPS devices are not entitled to protection from interference.”

Crazy statement? If you think so, see if you recall reading this statement on equipment such as GPS receivers. It is on almost every electronic device that relies on radio signals.

“This device complies with Part 15 of the FCC Rules. Operation is subject to the following two conditions:

“(1) This device may not cause harmful interference, and (2) this device must accept any interference received, including interference that may cause undesired operation.”

What if LightSquared can convince the FCC that GPS receivers do, indeed, fall within the confines of Part 15 of the FCC rules and aren’t entitled to interference protection? That’s what the company is trying to do, and that’s why this fight ain’t quite done.

Don’t underestimate the power of the White House pushing the National Broadband Plan, or of commercial interests — of which there are myriad — seeking to turn a buck on the hunger, whether real or only perceived, for limitless broadband. Even the transportation depsec allowed in his testimony as how “in the Obama administration, we believe deeply in what LightSquared is attempting to do, which is to make the Internet more accessible to more people all across the country. This is an urgent national priority.”

Communications for My RTK

Some people in the GPS industry who believe that the LightSquared service will do wonders for RTK operations, somehow replacing the communications methods we currently use (UHF/VHF, 900MHz, GSM/GPRS, CDMA, Wifi/Mifi, etc.). I disagree.

LightSquared was relying on Sprint’s infrastructure (~31,000 towers) for its terrestrial operations, supplementing them with ~3,400 LightSquared towers at some point. I’ve used Sprint’s mobile phone service for about 12 years and I used Sprint’s data card service for several years (not any longer). I pretty much know that Sprint is good for metro areas and poor for rural areas. Like other wireless providers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.), Sprint is strong in some geographic areas, and weak in others. Since LightSquared is focused on serving people (densely populated areas) rather than geographic areas (e.g., farmlands), their terrestrial service is not going to be even close to being nationwide. LightSquared’s solution for areas not covered by their terrestrial service is to use satellite communications for Internet connectivity.

If you think you would enjoy ubiquitous coverage with satellite communications for your RTK operations, consider OmniSTAR’s service, which is in the same spectrum as what LightSquared proposed. OmniSTAR works great when there’s a clear view of the sky to one of OmniSTAR’s satellites (ironically, operated by LightSquared) such as in the agriculture industry. But I’ve used it a bit and — just like GPS — it doesn’t work in buildings, in vehicles, under trees, or in other obstructed-sky locations.

Can you imagine using a LightSquared mobile phone that doesn’t work in buildings, in cars, or under trees? You wouldn’t. Anyone who’s ever used RTK knows that spotty base/rover communications is the quickest way to spoil an RTK party. With GPS/GLONASS receivers allowing us to use RTK in places where we’ve rarely ventured before, the limitation wouldn’t be the number of navigation satellites in view, but rather if the LightSquared satellite was in view.

For those of you who heard that LightSquared might have been a good idea in order to make wireless mobile Internet access more affordable, I seriously doubt that statement as well. Documents in a huge Freedom of Information Act release by the FCC reveal what LightSquared was planning to charge its wholesale customers (not retail) when they were out of range of the terrestrial system and forced to use LightSquared’s satellite for wireless broadband. The wholesale cost of their satellite broadband service was to be $10 per megabyte (not gigabyte), an astonishingly high price for a company that’s been touting affordable, nationwide wireless broadband Internet service.

Upgrade Costs

A cool $2.4 billion was the official estimate given for aviation industry upgrades, should LightSquared have gone forward. I think that’s conservative because I doubt it covers the infrastructure upgrade cost (WAAS, GBAS, and so on) or the cost of NextGen program delays.

How about something closer to home? I queried the administrator of a statewide RTK network of 103 GNSS reference stations, and used his estimates to extrapolate national costs in that regard: 7,000 CORS receivers across the United States. They look like this: optimistic scenario, $64 million; likely,$92 million; worst-case scenario, $120 million.

Keep in mind that this is only the high-precision GPS/GNSS infrastructure in the United States. There are still hundreds of thousands of high-precision GPS/GNSS receivers owned by users across the country that would have to be upgraded. For many GPS receivers (think handheld), there will be no upgrade solution, so the manufacturer might offer trade-in credit for a new GPS receiver.

After spending time to understand the actual costs of accomodating LightSquared, one state legislator who initially voiced his support for LightSquared said “we can’t afford it.”

New Beginnings

Included in the NTIA report was a recommendation that, with time, GPS receivers could be redesigned in order to accomodate LightSquared’s 10L signal.

NTIA also reported that during the January 13 EXCOM meeting, it was agreed that “federal agencies will move forward this year to develop and establish new GPS spectrum interference standards that will help inform future proposals for non-space commercial uses in the bands adjacent to the GPS signals and ensure that any such proposals are implemented without affecting existing and evolving uses of space-based PNT services vital to economic, public safety, scientific, and national security needs.”

In summary, GPS/GNSS receiver designs will change in the coming years and move towards more efficient use of spectrum. To me, a critical statement in the NTIA letter to the FCC is “without affecting existing and evolving” — meaning that not only should GPS be considered, but also GPS-like systems from other countries such as Russia’s GLONASS, Europe’s Galileo, and other developing satellite navigation systems and applications.

ERIC GAKSTATTER is contributing editor for survey of GPS World, and editor of Geospatial Solutions.

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