Broadband provider LightSquared’s ambitious plan to build a hybrid ground- and satellite-based 4G-LTE network that could cut wireless bills in half has triggered strong interference from the airline industry — and from within Washington’s corridors of power.
The “interference” in this case is actual radio frequency disruption to GPS receivers and integrated devices — particularly the flight safety technology used by commercial airlines like Delta (NYSE:DAL), United Continental (NYSE:UAL), AMR‘s (NYSE:AMR) American and US Airways (NYSE:LCC). Now the wholesale broadband wireless network LightSquared had planned to launch this year is at grave risk of not launching at all.
Here’s why: Since the FCC gave the privately held LightSquared conditional approval to launch the service last January, federal officials and major GPS stakeholders like commercial airlines have howled in protest. The concern: that LightSquared’s 40,000 high-power, earth-based transmitters will interfere with the GPS signals that airlines and others rely on for navigation and safety.
LightSquared has had a very bad week. Data gleaned from interference tests conducted Nov. 30 found serious interference with many GPS devices. The government’s National Executive Committee on Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) said that while tests show cell phones would largely be unaffected by the network, it “caused harmful interference to the majority of other tested general-purpose GPS receivers.” It doesn’t help LightSquared’s case that U.S. transportation and defense department officials chair the PNT committee.
Separate analysis by the FAA also found “interference with a flight safety system designed to warn pilots of approaching terrain.” Between 2014 and 2023, interference to the GPS-enabled Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System from the LightSquared network could result in 794 passenger deaths and more than $72 billion in additional costs to taxpayers, the FAA’s navigation division found.
To make matters worse, now the U.S. Congress has put LightSquared’s plans on hold. Tucked into an obscure section of the $662 billion 2012 Defense Authorization Act passed by the House and Senate last week is a rule barring the FCC from approving LightSquared’s network for commercial service unless and until the DOD’s concerns about GPS interference are resolved.
Needless to say, LightSquared is far from pleased, and company officials came out swinging after the test results were released. “The statement that testing shows that most GPS devices would be disrupted by LightSquared’s operation is patently false,” LightSquared executive Martin Harriman said in a statement last week. “There is no way that such a conclusion could be drawn without deliberately ignoring a critical element in LightSquared’s mitigation proposal to manage the power from its network that GPS devices will be able to receive.”
The Nov. 30 test results are critical to LightSquared’s future because interference concerns forced it to forgo the 10 MHz of spectrum closest to the GPS band earlier this year. The company said using the lower part of its bandwidth would eliminate any interference with other devices. Unfortunately, the government’s test data disputes that view.