Caught in the Middle – GPS, Broadband and the Unfortunate Case of Light Squared

I attended a Congressional hearing yesterday on the Light Squared ‘situation’.  Dr. Scott Pace of the Elliott School participated as an expert witness  about GPS technology, and graciously let me tag along. Light Squared has been developing a 4G-LTE open wireless broadband network, which is sorely needed given the market’s insatiable demand for connected, mobile devices.  Light Squared intends to offer its network wholesale to other retail providers (i.e. Verizon, Sprint) who will own the ultimate relationships with their customers. This (theoretically at least) opens the door for further and new competition among service providers, although Sprint has already committed to a big chunk of the bandwidth. Still, the Light Squared network would solve capacity limitation issues and create more consumer options – all good things, right?

With a $4B investment to date, Light Squared seems to have shifted direction a bit in recent years from creating a satellite-based network to a combination satellite and terrestrial network. And therein lies the unfortunate problem, in that the spectrum it has rights to is adjacent to GPS spectrum, and, given Light Squared’s much more powerful signal, it causes interference with land-based GPS receivers that rely on complete signal accuracy. Well, we can’t have this. At the Congressional hearing, highly placed execs from NOAA, NASA, DOT and the USGS all lined up to testify why Light Squared’s network creates the potential for catastrophy within their respective domains, and those are extensive. GPS is used in everything these days.

Light Squared’s response was (and has been over the past year) cooperative and creative in attempting to modify its technology and even the range of the spectrum it will use to avoid the interference problem. The brave company executive on the witness panel defended their position, even to claiming that much of the problem could be solved through low cost receiver antenna upgrades. However, Dr. Pace contends that ‘the photons don’t care’ about types of receivers and that the problem is not at present technically solvable to a point that satisfies safety requirements for critical GPS-enabled applications – aviation, military, weather, even precision agriculture.

So here is Light Squared, seemingly progressing down the wrong $4B path due to premature FCC licensing, and now caught in the middle of a very uncomfortable situation. It  just can’t operate without FCC go-ahead approval.  Congress at this point is unlikely to allow that approval, not that the FCC would attempt it given the risks (still, there must undoubtedly be some inclination to face saving). Even courteous and sympathetic Congressman Jerry McNerney from California closed his questioning time by saying he didn’t think we were technically quite there yet.

The outcome of yesterday’s hearing was agreement that considerable further testing of work-around options is needed.  That leaves Light Squared in a kind of limbo – does it keep working and spending a lot more money in the belief that some operating permission will ultimately be given?  Does it abandon ship and throw away its enormous investment?  Does it apply big financial pressure to Washington to see what compromise it can buy? 

It was really interesting to see the committee Representatives, many of whom were Republican and who usually could be relied upon as business advocates, taking a stand against this corporate entity.  I found myself sympathetic to Light Squared’s case, wondering if they indeed had been misled by the FCC who perhaps did not understand the technical realities of what they were agreeing to in 2009, and now are caught in a conundrum.  As a consumer, I would love to see more providers entering the broadband space to increase our options. As a relative newcomer to the DC area who relies on my TomTom to go almost everywhere, I think we need to protect GPS. This situation sets up a fascinating study of government IT policy, its impact on industry, and its responsibility to public good.

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