New Wireless Network Could Get Airplanes Lost

by Susan J. Aluise | April 8, 2011 10:50 am

Imagine a new technology company with a very big dream: to build an advanced wireless broadband and satellite network that’s fast enough to download movies in minutes and robust enough to power the next generation of smart devices and apps. Reston, Va.-based LightSquared plans to offer that integrated 4G-LTE network to telecom carriers later this year.

But here’s the catch: the new network will operate on a radio frequency that could pose a significant interference risk for global positioning system signals airlines use for precise navigation, landing, and much more. Any disruption in the accuracy of GPS signals could be a huge deal for the airline industry, which is heavily reliant on GPS.

The issue is similar to what happens when a stronger radio station disrupts the signal of a weaker one. In an effort to accelerate the National Broadband Plan, the Federal Communications Commission gave LightSquared conditional approval in January to launch its broadband system. 

This system will use 40,000 transmitters to re-broadcast signals at high power.  Because the signals coming from those powerful earth-based transmitters are closer to GPS receivers than they are to the GPS satellites that send navigational signals, critics worry that the interference would disrupt vital data on aircraft, perhaps compromising safety.

LightSquared officials say that they are working closely with the FCC to make sure that the new system, for which the company already has inked multiple client agreements, won’t pose a conflict with existing GPS systems. The FCC also believes that both systems can coexist without posing a safety risk.

Not so fast, major commercial GPS users say. “LightSquared plans to transmit ground-based radio signals that would be one billion or more times more powerful as received on earth than GPS’s low-powered satellite-based signals,” the Coalition to Save Our GPS said on Wednesday. “LightSquared’s facilities could create 40,000 ‘dead spots’ – each miles in diameter – around U.S. cities — and, importantly, their airports.”  The coalition includes the Air Transport Assn., International Air Transport Assn., Aircraft Electronics Assn. and the Regional Airline Assn.

Because GPS systems are used extensively in the airline industry, the impact on operations could be significant. The LightSquared network, “will result in an unreliable reception,” commercial airline pilot Rick Dyer wrote to the FCC.  Among the effects: “Loss of pilots’ primary means of navigation during a final approach,” he said.

For airlines, the present risk of distorted GPS signals is significant enough.  But the future risk actually may be the greater danger. FAA’s Next Generation System requires consistently accurate and reliable GPS signals to work.

NextGen aims to upgrade the aging U.S. airspace system by integrating advanced satellite technologies that allow pilots to fly more direct routes while avoiding other traffic and severe weather.   Air traffic controllers will have more precise data on aircraft position, so they can reduce aircraft separation safely and more cost effectively.

Airlines such as Southwest (NYSE:LUV[1]), JetBlue (Nasdaq:JBLU[2]), US Airways (NYSE:LLC[3]) as well as air cargo operators including UPS (NYSE:UPS[4]) increasingly are beginning to test the key NextGen technology, GPS-based automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), to better manage changing flight and weather conditions in real-time. 

But if there’s doubt about the accuracy of the GPS signal, all of the FAA’s NextGen plans – and the savings airlines can reap from them – could be significantly delayed or lost altogether.

As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold an interest in any of the stocks mentioned here.

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