The System: NTIA, FCC Waiver No More on LS

March 1, 2012  - By
Image: GPS World

“We conclude that LightSquared’s proposed mobile broadband network will impact GPS services and that there is no practical way to mitigate the potential interference at this time.” These words from Lawrence Strickling, U.S. assistant secretary for communications and information and head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), appear to signal the end of LightSquared’s run.

Strickling’s letter to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski appeared in public on February 14. Later that same day, FCC spokesperson Tammy Sun released a statement from that agency that “the Commission will not lift the prohibition on LightSquared,” and that it plans to “vacate the Conditional Waiver Order, and suspend indefinitely LightSquared’s Ancillary Terrestrial Component authority.”

The NTIA and the FCC share responsibility for controlling U.S. radio spectrum use. The FCC supposedly has final authority in these matters, although the NTIA, representing government interests, may swing the bigger cat in the room. LightSquared’s inability to satisfy the requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), coupled with unremitting frowning and glowering from the Department of Defense, may have been the deciding factors — more so than the uproar among most GPS manufacturers. The FAA and the U.S. military, two key government entities with widely fielded GPS equipment and applications, constituted the backbone that the NTIA finally showed, although the military has been, with one notable exception, silent on the issue, and indeed is not mentioned in the NTIA letter.

Strickling’s eight-page letter recaps the history, with a July 6, 2011, early climax: “Test results demonstrated that LightSquared’s then-planned deployment of terrestrial operations posed a significant potential for harmful interference to GPS services.” He relates further NTIA testing of cellular GPS receivers, joint continued analysis by FAA and LightSquared of impact on aviation receivers, and testing of general/personal navigation GPS receivers by the Executive Steering Group of the Interagency National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (EXCOM).

Strickling quotes a January 13 letter from Ashton Carter, deputy secretary for defense, and John Porcari, deputy secretary for transportation: “It is the unanimous conclusion of the test findings by the EXCOM agencies that both LightSquared’s original and modified plans for its proposed mobile network would cause harmful interference to many GPS receivers. Additionally, an analysis by the FAA has concluded that the LightSquared proposals are not compatible with several GPS-dependent aircraft safety-of-flight systems. . . There appear to be no practical solutions or mitigations that would permit the LightSquared broadband service, as prosposed, to operate in the next few months or years without significantly interfering with GPS. As a result, no additional testing is warranted at this time.”

But Wait. We’re not done yet. Strickling calls for GPS receiver standards to be developed, citing the EXCOM’s decision 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.”

NTIA and PNT EXCOM will devise “standards for the development and procurement of GPS receivers to support their various mission requirements.” NTIA recognized “the importance that receiver standards could play as part of a forward-looking model for spectrum management even beyond the immediate issue of GPS.”

The FCC, in its concurrence statement to the NTIA letter, begins by reciting the mantras of “economic growth, job creation, and to promote competition . . . freeing up spectrum for mobile broadband,” and gradually works its way around to its decision on the waiver. This signals an ongoing commitment to make further efforts towards broadband implementation.

In-Car Nav Under Safety Scrutiny

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed voluntary guidelines for car manufacturers on February 16, including a recommendation to design dashboards so that distracting devices are automatically disabled unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission is in park. The agency is concerned about proliferation of text messages, GPS images, phone calls, and web surfing, and wants carmakers to curb those distractions when vehicles are moving.

Technological advances, among them GPS-enabled navigation, have raised concerns that drivers’ attention is being diverted too much from the road.

“We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today’s American drivers,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “The guidelines would offer real-world guidance to automakers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want without disrupting a driver’s attention or sacrificing safety.”

Under the guidelines, GPS and other navigation devices that provide directions would be permitted while driving, but NHTSA asks that they be designed so that drivers can’t manually enter a destination unless the car is in park. A spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers cautioned against this. “There are often passengers in the car who can enter addresses, so we need to consider that when looking at requiring these technologies to only be used in park,” she said. “And if the GPS is disabled when moving, consumers can always bring their own Garmin into the vehicle. It’s complicated.”

Other dashboard technologies recommended for automatic disabling include text-messaging, Internet browsing, social media browsing, phone dialing and computer screen messages of 30 characters or more that are unrelated to driving.

Manufacturers are also urged to revise in-car designs to reduce to two seconds or less the amount of time drivers must divert their eyes from the road to use a device. Devices should also be designed so that drivers don’t have to use more than one hand or glance through extraneous information.

A spokesperson for state highway safety offices said that “the safest thing is for drivers not to use these systems at all — both hands on the wheel and the mind focused solely on driving.”

The process for writing actual federal rules often takes years to complete. The guidelines represent a way “ to continue the drumbeat” that distracted driving is a serious safety issue that costs lives.

NHTSA is also considering guidelines to address portable electronic devices drivers carry with them into cars, including GPS navigation systems.

SSTL-OHB to Build Eight More Galileo Satellites

European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani announced in London that the consortium led by OHB System AG and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) will build a further eight satellites for the European Union’s Galileo satellite navigation program under the supervision of the European Space Agency.

The new contract will see SSTL, builder of the GIOVE-A satellite, continuing its role as payload prime, assembling, integrating, and testing the navigation payloads in the UK, while OHB System, as the prime contractor, builds the eight satellite platforms and executes final integration of all the satellites in Germany. The SSTL-OHB partnership is already building 14 satellites for the Galileo program and will draw on its heritage and experience to produce the additional satellites to demanding schedules.

SSTL is assembling the Galileo program payloads at its recently opened purpose-built Kepler technical facility in Guildford, UK. SSTL will manufacture the electrical harnesses and the electronics to interface the navigation payload with the satellite platform.

The remaining payload equipment will be externally procured by SSTL from European and other suppliers. SSTL’s payload solution is based on European-sourced atomic clocks, navigation signal generators, high-power traveling-wave tube amplifiers, and antennas, and will provide all of Galileo’s services.

Compass Poised

As this magazine goes to press, a new GNSS satellite may simultaneously be rising. The Chinese government issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) for a satellite launch on, February 24,  at about 16:20 UTC. According to web reports, the launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center will orbit the fifth geostationary satellite in the BeiDou-2/Compass constellation.

Funding Affirms NextGen; Unmanned Flight Advances Also

For the last five years, the Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA) has made do with 23 short-term funding appropriations from Congress, but on January 30, congressional leaders agreed on a four-year, $63 billion funding bill. The funding will accelerate the creation of the NextGen (Next Generation Air Transportation System) air traffic control system. A new post will be created — the Chief NextGen Officer — to oversee the effort, and a schedule for progress will be set.

A key piece of NextGen includes GPS-enabled Required Navigation Performance (RNP), which allows an aircraft to fly a specific path between two 3-dimensionally defined points in space.

The bill also assures funding subsidies for rural airports at $190 million a year. New labor rules will make it harder for airline employees to unionize, requiring half the workers in a bargaining unit to petition for a vote to certify a union, an increase from the current 35 percent.

“All of us at this table made compromises,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chair of the Senate’s transportation committee, told USA Today. “The outcome is that we have a bill that will take steps to modernize our air traffic control system, make the air transportation system safer than ever, and make certain small communities have access to critical air service.”

Unmanned Aircraft. Congress also passed legislation starting the clock on a number of deadlines the FAA must meet to safely integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace system. Chief among them is a deadline for full integration by September 2015.

Using GPS to underlie the whole concept, the UAS industry has made significant technological advancements during the last decade, and the legislation recognizes the important role UAS will play in the future air transportation system.

Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) said, “UAS are truly a revolutionary-type technology, and I’m confident that once people can fly UAS in the national airspace for civil and commercial purposes, such as oil and pipeline monitoring, crop dusting, and search and rescue, a whole new industry will emerge, inventing products and accomplishing tasks we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Other major provisions of the bill include:

  • Requiring six UAS test sites within six months (similar to the language in the already-passed Defense Authorization bill);
  • Requiring small UAS (under 55 pounds) be allowed to fly in the U.S. Arctic, 24-hours-a-day, beyond line-of-sight, at an altitude of at least 2,000 feet, within one year;
  • Requiring expedited access for public users, such as law enforcement, firefighters, emergency responders;
  • Allowing first responders to fly very small UAS (4.4 pounds or less) within 90 days if they meet certain requirements.

The goal is to grant law enforcement and firefighters immediate access to start flying small systems to save lives and increase public safety.

Spectrum Swamp

On January 30, the same day that a LightSquared VP told an Institute of Navigation audience that moving to a different spectrum posed formidable difficulties, a company working on behalf of LightSquared contacted a Department of Defense official to discuss just such a spectrum swap.

The McChrystal Group, led by retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal, contacted the Department of Defense’s Mid-Atlantic Area Frequency Coordinator at Pawtuxet River, Maryland, to discuss “a spectrum swap.”  The McChrystal representatives indicated interest in the upper 10 MHz (1515–1525 MHz) of the Aeronautical Mobile Telemetry band (1435–1525 MHz). This spectrum is vital to the development and test of aircraft and weapon systems, for both government agencies and industry, is heavily scheduled and utilized, and is also used for safety of life services (see “Letters to the Editor” in this issue, page 8).

Moving LightSquared’s license to a different radio frequency spectrum has been suggested by some as a possible exit strategy from the LightSquared/GPS interference conflict. At least one wireless industry analyst has surmised that this  constituted a part of LightSquared’s strategic plan all along.

A source familiar with the situation contacted GPS World after this story appeared online to say that “a swap would be complicated but never ‘insurmountable.’  The bottom line is that [LightSquared’s VP] did not talk about swaps of any specific spectrum. He talked about the difficulty to get a wireless company up and running, and if you’ve got something that has spectrum, technology, and a successful business model, then that’s very rare, and you can’t necessarily duplicate it. But he said nothing about whether a swap of some specific kind of spectrum could be done. If the parties are willing, it’s actually not that hard.”

Nevada OKs Unmanned Driving

Nevada became the first state in the nation to authorize the use of autonomous vehicles on its roadways.

Manufacturers are developing vehicles that could allow a motorist to plug in a destination and let the vehicle drive there automatically. Google has several prototypes, logging more than 160,000 test miles.

The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles will formalize licensing procedures for companies that want to test their vehicles in the state.

General Motors has run several tests, some in conjunction with Carnegie-Mellon University on a self-driving Chevrolet Tahoe, The Boss. BMW has several test vehicles in operation, as does Audi in collaboration with Stanford University. Many of these cars, or their predecessors, have participated in DARPA Grand Challenges, reported in this magazine.

SVN-49 Broadcasting on L-Band

GPS satellite SVN-49 began transmitting an L-band signal on or about February 2. SVN-49 is currently being used as a vehicle of opportunity for satellite subsystem testing. However, SVN-49 is declared unusable until further notice, and will not be included in the broadcast almanac.