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GPS Industry Breathes Sigh of Relief

June 25, 2014  - By


The U.S. Federal Communications Commission convened a June 20 workshop on “GPS Protection and Receiver Performance” whose bite turned out to be far less than its bark had led some in the GPS industry to fear. The hastily assembled workshop — three weeks notice was given — appeared at first notice to derive from the call for “GPS receiver performance standards” that was one of the outcomes of the LightSquared controversy of 2012. The FCC chief emphatically noted, however, before anyone else could say anything, that the meeting was “not about FCC-mandated receiver standards.” A nearly audible sigh came from the collected dignitaries.

Perhaps the slotting of “GPS Protection” into first position within the workshop’s title might have given some clue. The meeting did turn out to be a less-than-alarming gathering of stakeholders, and in fact a reiteration of the need to emphasize and safeguard critical infrastructure and public safety — two key uses of GPS.

Two weeks prior to the workshop, Brad Parkinson declared to the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board that “A number of manufacturers are quite panicked over this because of the possibility of some superposition of, in essence, how you design a receiver for GPS. This could vastly affect the whole substance of what we are if carried to the point that someone dictates how you design a receiver. I think that’s kind of dangerous.”

But the meeting, in the end, took a positive, protective, and conciliatory tone, even as the FCC continues beating the drum for more frequencies for mobile broadband, citing the need “get more out of the radio spectrum.”

“Today is about federal and non-federal leaders coming together to discuss successful industry-driven collaborations and GPS receiver performance,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in his opening remarks. “These are not abstract issues. But let me also be specific about what today is not. It is not about FCC-mandated receiver standards. Rather it is about the best way to protect GPS operations in the context of evolving technology and adjacent spectrum activities.”

The specter of adjacent spectrum use hovered intermittently throughout the day, appearing  fully in the presentation by LightSquared and one from the President’s representative. Otherwise, scant mention was made of the oft-expressed 2012 sentiment that GPS receivers needed to be modified in the way they work, to stop their alleged “peeking” into adjacent spectrum.

Peekin’? We don’t need no steenkin’ peekin’!

After further introductory remarks from the FCC’s head of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the audience heard a technology market update from the U.S. Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). The report relied almost entirely upon the European GNSS Agency’s (GSA’s) 2013 GNSS Market Report for its global statistics, while displaying some domestic charts of its own. Among the conclusions: GPS/GNSS is an enabling technology for innovation and disruption; and the consumer market, defined as road and location-based services (LBS), represents the biggest opportunity. The CEA presentation is available here.

The morning’s first panel discussion focused on the importance of GPS for critical infrastructure and public safety users, with presentations by Qualcomm, Motorola, and AT&T in addition to various government agencies. Cormac Conroy, vice president at Qualcomm, emphasized the critical role of GPS in emergency calls from mobile phones (E-911) and what he called “enhanced location services”: vehicle and pedestrian navigation, location-based alerts and reminders, and location as context in mobile apps.

Other speakers, including representatives from Ericsson, T-Mobile, Spirent, Garmin, NovAtel, and John Deere, covered GPS’s role in timing and thus controlling the nation’s power grid, the financial markets, the telecommunication network including cable TV, and the national breadbasket, precision agriculture. Paul Galyean of Deere said that “Certainty on the spectrum environment is needed. It’s difficult to design for the future without it.” And further, if GPS receivers had to filter out cellular activity, this “might impact sensitivity, involve excessive size or cost, and might cause distortion of GPS measurements.” The Deere presentation is available here.

Chris Hegarty from the MITRE Corporation gave one of the day’s most compelling arguments for not overhauling GPS receiver methodology: the extremely long lead times for commercial passenger aircraft. “Until 2022 every new Boeing and Airbus is going to fly off with $250,000 worth of navigation equipment that has three $50,000 GPS receivers and antennas and everything else, and they are going to want to use that for 20 to 25 years. So, you have a timing issue. Even if we all decided today that we wanted to do that, some communities simply aren’t going to be able to get it into place until we’re all dead.”

White House Espouses Adjacent Spectrum

Tom Power, deputy chief technology officer for telecommunications, held up the banner for “efficient use of spectrum” and pronounced the Administration opposed to “listening in.” Ironic, given its other proclivities. He advocated against some technologies exerting undue elbow room on “nearby users who want to make a change.”

Representing the latter contingent, LightSquared restricted its performance to showing, with reputed science, how other users such as cellular, Bluetooth, WiFi, and even laptop computers pour more power into the GPS band than does LightSquared.  The presentation of Geoffrey Stearn, vice president of spectrum development, is viewable here.



About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.