GPS Interference Concerns Spark Congressional Action on LightSquared

GPS Interference Concerns Spark Congressional Action on LightSquared

The controversial proposal by LightSquared to operate a satellite-terrestrial wireless mobile broadband communications system that might interfere with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers encountered rough sledding in Congress on two fronts last week.

Two subcommittees of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (HT&I) committee held a hearing on June 23 where LightSquared opponents offered dramatic testimony about what would happen to GPS users if the terrestrial segment of the system is allowed to operate. The next day, the House Appropriations Committee acted to prevent the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from allowing the company to proceed until the GPS interference issues are resolved.

The FCC granted a provisional license to LightSquared on January 26. It required the company to work with the GPS community to determine the extent of interference and report back by June 15. The FCC granted the company’s recent request for a two-week extension; the report is now due on Friday, July 1. The license prohibits the company from commercial operations of its terrestrial network until the interference issues are settled.

At the hearing, aviation interests in particular lambasted the FCC for granting a provisional license at all. RTCA, Inc., which functions as a federal advisory committee to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), did a study that determined that LightSquared’s plans to use three spectrum deployment phases would be “incompatible with the current aviation use of GPS,” although use of a single lower channel could be acceptable.

The government’s National Space-Based PNT Systems Engineering Forum (NPEF) issued a separate report in mid-June recommending that the FCC rescind the license.

At the hearing, a LightSquared Vice President, Jeffrey Carlisle, defended his company’s plan. He assured lawmakers that the company “has no intention of conducting its operations in a way that interferes with government or commercial aviation or maritime operations in the United States…” The system involves the use of a geostationary satellite – SkyTerra, launched last fall – and 40,000 terrestrial cellular base stations. Users can use the satellite, the base stations, or both, depending on their needs. SkyTerra Communications, Inc. was purchased by Harbinger Capital Partners, a hedge fund and major investor in Lightsquared, earlier in 2010. LightSquared’s supporters praise the company’s promise as a mobile wireless broadband provider.

The House Appropriations Committee, however, was not persuaded. The day after the hearing, it adopted an amendment to the FY2012 Financial Services Appropriations bill that would prohibit the FCC from spending funds to remove the conditions it placed on the license or to otherwise permit LightSquared to proceed until the FCC has resolved the GPS interference issues. The Financial Services appropriations bill includes the FCC. The amendment was offered by Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) and Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and adopted by voice vote.

At a Secure World Foundation meeting on June 16, Peter Marquez, who oversaw development of President Obama’s National Space Policy when he was on the staff of the National Security Council, and Andrew Palowitch from the Air Force/National Reconnaissance Office Space Protection Office, expressed exasperation at the FCC for granting the license as well. Marquez, who now works for Orbital Sciences Corp. and is a member of the NPEF’s parent advisory committee, said the issue is consuming an inordinate amount of time at the White House and elsewhere in the Obama Administration. The National Space Policy reaffirms the U.S. Government’s commitment to GPS services and interference mitigation for GPS and similar systems.

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