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In a suspect move, LightSquared calls for GPS design standards

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In its ongoing fight to launch its nationwide LTE service, LightSquared on Wednesday Tuesday asked the Federal Communications Commission to impose the first-ever standards on GPS device design, claiming such requirements would allow GPS and its 4G network to co-exist peacefully in the satellite bands. While LightSquared would appear to be taking the middle path, the proposal smacks of a political stunt.

Even if the FCC agreed to establish such standards, the rulemaking process and implementing those design requirements would take years, while leaving millions of interference-prone devices in the market that would need to replaced or retrofitted. Meanwhile LightSquared isn’t changing its launch plans and intends to roll out its LTE network this year — if it can get FCC approval.

LightSquared maintains that GPS device makers like Garmin(s grmn) and Trimble Navigation(s trmb) designed their receivers sloppily so that they reach outside of the GPS bands into LightSquared’s frequencies. That’s ultimately the source of the widely reported interference problems navigation and location devices experience when they get to close the carrier’s LTE transmitters. LightSquared correctly points out that the commercial GPS industry has never had to build their devices to particular standards and has, instead, been piggybacking off the government-built and maintained GPS satellite network since its inception.

But GPS and satellite networks co-existed peacefully in the L-band for years since satellite signals are too weak to overpower any GPS receiver listening in on its frequencies. What’s changed is how LightSquared wants to use its satellite spectrum: a high-powered terrestrial LTE transmitter would overwhelm a low-power GPS device in its vicinity, if it weren’t designed to shield out any foreign signals.

LightSquared is right in principle. If the FCC is serious about finding new spectrum for mobile broadband it has to protect license holders. In order to prep the L-band for 4G, the government needs to create and enforce standards on the GPS devices to prevent them from stepping outside of their bands.

But in this case, LightSquared is using principle as a cudgel to beat back the commercial GPS lobby so it can deploy its LTE network before it runs out of funding. Drawing attention to receiver design paints the GPS industry as the bad guy and makes LightSquared out to be the victim of its selfishness and neglect. That’s a perception LightSquared would love to amplify as Congress focuses its attention on the controversy.

Interference in the L-band is a big issue that will take years to fix. On the one hand, LightSquared is making the perfectly reasonable argument that the problem can be solved through government-imposed standards. But in the next breath, it seems to be denying that the problem exists at all, demanding permission to launch its network regardless of what chaos ensues with GPS. The would-be carrier probably doesn’t care one whit if such standards are ever adopted. In fact, LightSquared is asking the FCC rule that GPS receivers aren’t entitled to protection from interference, which would make standards moot. LightSquared just wants to get its network built as quickly as and by any means possible.

25 Responses to “In a suspect move, LightSquared calls for GPS design standards”

  1. I’d like to see LightSquared’s tech get off the ground for competition sake. I don’t want to see GPS devices messed with, but making standards by which device manufacturers have to abide makes perfect sense to me – I’m shocked they aren’t already in place.
    I don’t think this is inconsistent with LightSquared’s claims that there is no *real* interference with GPS devices – rather it indicates their willingness to approach the battle on multiple fronts. If GPS manufacturers want to claim device interference, LightSquared will continue battle on this front while also countering in case of a GPS victory here by fighting for regulation.

  2. Coming from the engineering field and after reading all the comments i agree with the fact that there needs to be standards implemented on GPS. Everything that transmits a signal has FCC regulations on it from basic AM/FM radio to TV to cell phones to well everything… Everything has these rules to avoid interference and GPS should have the same rules and regulations place on it. As far as Lightsquared trying to roll out its LTE network, the two shouldnt have anything to do with each other. If the LTE network is built to spec with the proper sidebands and the GPS devices which do by the way transmit and receive were built to a higher spec there is no argument. It is also obvious that GPS is not built to a high standard when my phone or GPS unit places me in a lake 15 miles away from my current location. The whole GPS industry piggy backs off the original government system placed long before we all had personal units. Yes there would be high costs and years to roll out updated GPS equipment and devices but i feel it is needed. We are currently using a system that has long needed an upgrade. Getting back to my point the large LTE network that LS is trying to launch is needed seeing as LTE is winning the 4G war. The problem i see is if they launch their network tomorrow(if they got approval) they would then get sued for the interference on GPS. I agree with them going to the FCC to force GPS to have rules and regulations, not only will it fix the interference problem once the new system was rolled out it would also introduce higher build quality and more accurate devices. Sorry for all the run-on sentences and typos its been a long day but, I felt I should share my thoughts and opinions about this topic

  3. Ultimately the GPS manufacturers are responsible, but the FCC needs to bite the bullet here. 1) Find LightSquared another block of spectrum to replace their current allocation, 2) Impose restrictions on new GPS devices so use of this spectrum no longer interferes with them, and 3) Set a timetable (say 5 to 10 years) before LightSquared’s current block can be used for terrestrial application. This lets LS continue with their business plan, fixes the GPS problem (over time as new “fixed” devices replace the old ones) and opens up additional spectrum, without impacting LightSquared’s or the GPS manufacturers’ business. The only problem is finding a block of unused spectrum (note I don’t say unallocated) to swap for their current block.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi C,

      I agree wholeheartedly with you on points 2 and 3, but not on 1. LightSquared took a huge gamble when it bought SkyTerra. It shouldn’t be rewarded with new spectrum just because its bet didn’t pay out.

    • C,

      The real issue you ignore is GPS aviation navigation equipment. The lifetime of aviation equipment is 20 years or longer. AND even for little bitty airplanes, IFR certified GPS equipment costs $15,000 or more. The bulk of what has been installed so far won’t be obsolete for a couple of decades.

      • Easily, only if cost is ignored. FAA certification of IFR certified navigation equipment is a very involved process, taking significant investment and time. The elephant in the room is ‘who pays?’.

        The government subsidized the DTV transition, if you remember, with significant discounts on converter boxes, two per family. Should the federal government do the same for Lightsquared? So that they can make the projected $10 billion on the increase in value of their MSS spectrum? I hope not!

      • Kevin Fitchard

        Still not a big obstacle. We’re talking about a relatively small part of the overall GPS industry. Either aircraft owners absorb the cost but are given a long enough timeline to comply (sort of like a catalytic converter) or there is a subsidy of some sort, tacked on as a fee to each connection bill. The same will have to be done in farming and other heavy industries that have long replacement cycles. It’s a problem, but one that can be easily overcome, not something that prevents any further progress with clearing the L-band for mobile broadband.

  4. I have to say that in this case I side with lightsquared. They should be allowed to use their license to the fullest extent of the restrictions imposed on it when they purchased it, and if there is interference with GPS well the GPS makers should be on the hook for the cost of upgrading/changing the devices. The largest consumer of GPS is actually mobile phones now, and I don’t see how that market is going to be affected in anything but a positive way by this move. There has to be some reasonable legal restrictions preventing neighboring services from trespassing on frequency they don’t own. Simply put the GPS industry is huge, and profitable, and does not need protection from this. I’m sick of the government protecting big businesses from innovative smaller ones. It is not in the public interest to stifle innovation, and the wireless services market is in desperate need of innovation of this kind.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi David,

      Well, strictly speaking you’re arguing against LS rather than for it. :)

      When LS bought its licenses they were designated for satellite use only and no one is telling LS it can’t use them for exactly that purpose. LightSquared is trying to lift the original restrictions that were on its band, and it would turn a modest investment into a huge bonanza in the process.

      I would hardly call LightSquared a small company. I fact, it’s basically a hedge fund. I agree with your sentiment in general, but I have little sympathy for the scions of Wall Street because they’ve failing to manipulate public opinion and government bureaucrats into giving them the network they want.

      I believe the L-band should be used be used for mobile broadband, and I agree standards should be imposed on all future GPS device designs so the band can eventually be used for that purpose. But it’s a process that will take years, and LS because of its financial interests isn’t willing to wait it out.

      • Skyterra bought the licenses for satellite purposes, and launched satallites; however the FCC allowed and the license to transfer to LightSquared for the purpose of the LTE network, and they built a business venture around it. According to this article it is actually quite common for an L-Band licensee to be allowed terrestrial bandwidth to supplement the satellite offering. So again I don’t see how this is their responsibility. It seems to be leaning toward the FTC and GPS bad actors.

      • Kevin Fitchard

        I’ll give you this, David, you do your research.

        That said, I have to point out that what the FCC granted was not a waiver to deploy a terrestrial-only network. It granted an ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) waiver, which, as you point out, almost all of the satellite band operators received.

        ATC is not the same thing as a full-bore mobile broadband waiver though. Under ATC LightSquared can deploy terrestrial transmitters to augment its satellite coverage in ‘urban canyons’ satellite signals can’t penetrate. It’s the same technology that XM uses to keep its service working in cities with no clear sight lines to the birds in orbit.

        If LightSquared wants it can deploy LTE right now as part of an ATC deployment (even if it interfered with GPS), but the satellite network would have to be the backbone and all phones would have satellite receivers. That’s not what LS wants to do. It wants to run a mobile broadband network just like Verizon’s. It applied for a full terrestrial network waiver in 2011 after its sale was long concluded. The FCC granted that waiver on the condition that LightSquared proved it wouldn’t interfere with GPS receivers.

        I agree with you in principle that the FCC should find some way of making mobile BB in the L-band work, but it’s not a bad actor. LightSquared new that it was taking a big risk when it started this whole project. It has every right to deploy the network it bought into. But it doesn’t give it the right to automatically change the terms of its license as it sees fit.

      • Fair enough, I was under the impression that the license to launch the LTE network was settled during the purchase. Since that is not the case as it seems it was a conditional license upon noninterference it would seem they are boned for the LTE only network. Seeing how the ATC would still interfere with the GPS network that would seem to give them a bit of leverage against the FCC, though not much. This is really a shame that it didn’t work out. The artificial scarcity placed on mobile broadband now is in desperate need of competition, and I was hoping this would shake up the competition, particularly if T-Mobile got it hands on some LTE networking to actually compete again. Oh well back to business as usual.

      • Kevin Fitchard

        Well, I wouldn’t right it off completely. Even if LS can’t build its network this year, the spectrum will still exist. Either LS will sell it off or go bankrupt. If the FCC actually starts rule making now it might not be unreasonable to think it could clear up a portion of the L-band for LTE use in five or six years when the capacity will really be needed.

        I’m not an RF engineer, but from my interviews with engineers, my understanding that the interference problems aren’t as dire as GPS makes them out to be but also not as simple as LS claims. It comes down to transmission power, and as we move to small cell technology, the high-power tower-mounted cell sites may give way to low-power pole-mounted metrocell. There are a lot of options for this spectrum it seems, but neither side is willing to acknowledge them.

        Thanks for commenting, David. It was a good discussion.

    • Suen Lee

      But their license doesn’t actually allow them to build such a terrestrial network and Federal regulations are in place that specifically forbid interference from ATC terrestrial transmitters operated by satellite communication companies to other users in the same spectrum.

      There is nothing innovative about LightSquared, they are do nothing more than trying to rezone residential property so that they can build a factory on it. And Dish is already trying to do the same thing, but so far in spectrum that doesn’t interfere with GPS.

      • But they aren’t interfering because they are bleeding into the GPS’ signal, the GPS hardware is sucking up signals from outside of the standard. LS can’t help it if Garmin makes crap hardware.

      • Kevin Fitchard

        Hi IceTrey,

        True, but Garmin’s hardware works perfectly fine now that the L-band is satellite only. Hardware makers design to thresholds the thresholds they face, and until 2011 when LightSquared applied for its waiver there was no reason for them to define them differently.

        I’m not saying that the GPS makers don’t need to change their designs, and this attitude that everyone else needs to accomodate their business model is absolutely ridiculous. They’ve had some warning that this was coming and they’ve done absolutely nothing to prepare. That said, a year isn’t enough time to change out the entire GPS receiver install base in the U.S. and for LS to imply they could have prepared for its sudden LTE launch is just as ridiculous.

        Basically we have an enormously powerful GPS industry butting heads with a very well-connected and wealthy hedge fund — both sides’ goals are to protect their own financial interests and neither side is willing to compromise. Here’s what needs to happen: both sides need to sit down and figure out a plan to make GPS and LTE co-exist side-by-side. It’s entirely possible. It will just take years to do. And more importantly neither side is willing to do it.

  5. This story is being posted on Tuesday, Feb. 7, saying that “LightSquared on Wednesday asked the Federal Communications Commission to impose the first-ever standards on GPS device design . . . .” Is this referring to a six-day-old filing, a filing to be made in the future, or a typo regarding a filing made on Monday or Tuesday?

  6. Paul Allen

    The September 2008 DoD Global Positioning System Standard Positioning Service Performance Standard should have spurred action by GPS manufacturers. After all, the wireless microphones “squatting” on commercial spectrum should have awakened the GPS industry, in addition.

    So, yes, the GPS industry should have moved immediately! Now it’s squatting on spectrum that’s no its own.

    I don’t blame LightSquared!

    • Suen Lee

      The September 2008 DoD Global Positioning System Standard Positioning Service Performance Standard defines specific minimum performance standards of the GPS system, not design standards for GPS receivers.

    • Paul, You’ve drunk the Lightsquared Kool-Aid big time. It would be best to research their claims before posting.

      GPS receivers do not ‘squat’ on commercial spectrum as the wireless microphones you try to use for an analogy. The wireless microphones are transmitters. GPS ‘receivers’ are only that; receivers. They don’t transmit anything, let alone on Lightsquared’s frequencies.

      Lightsquared is free to use the spectrum exactly as they paid for it, for MSS services. To insist that America allow them to change their MSS spectrum into much more valuable terrestrial spetrum for FREE, and then expect everyone else to foot the expense, is ludicrous. There is a reason the FCC, for ALL waivers granted, have put the responsibility for GPS interference ‘squarely’ on LightSquared’s shoulders. They will be the company that benefits to the tune of billions of dollars, they need to solve the problem in some other way than trying to deceitfully thrust it upon others.

      Wake up, Lightsquared fans! Or, perhaps you have too much money invested in Harbinger to be objective…

  7. spassmeister

    Tom Brady’s pass with no time on the clock had a much higher chance of success than this idea. What are they suggesting? replacement of the XX millions of GPS devices out in the marketplace? Perhaps we can have gas-masks specs created too so that new toxic gases, not presently filtered with existing gas masks, can be used safely. That shouldn’t take too long? And yes – their argument sounds a bit like the Russian’s comments after shooting down KAL007…”we didn’t shoot down any plane…and anyway…we thought it was a military plane”