FCC asked to halt GPS-jamming network

Full rulemaking process urged in LightSquared case

August 1, 2011

The Federal Communications Commission, now in possession of clear evidence that a proposed mobile communications network jams GPS signals, should recall approval it granted network venture LightSquared, and begin a full rulemaking process in the case, said AOPA and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).

The two associations, participants in the technical working group in the case through their representatives on the Program Management Committee of RTCA Inc., filed formal comments with the FCC on Aug. 1. AOPA and GAMA strongly urged the FCC to recall the waiver granted in January to LightSquared conditional on tests and solutions to now-confirmed interference with GPS. LightSquared has “entirely failed” to solve interference problems, which threaten the future of a GPS-based air traffic system—and no technology exists to provide a remedy, they said in the joint filing.

“The evidence is clear: LightSquared's proposal puts the entire GPS system at risk,” said AOPA President Craig Fuller. “Study after study has shown that LightSquared's plan is simply ‘incompatible’ with GPS. At the same time, the company's proposed solutions rely heavily on technology that doesn't exist. That's why we are joining with GAMA to ask the FCC to revoke LightSquared's waiver immediately, and to begin a rulemaking process that will protect the integrity of the GPS system into the future."

After the adverse test results emerged, LightSquared acknowledged the problems, but blamed the present conflict on past GPS designs. The company publicized an offer of a six-month “standstill” period—while also insisting that modification of existing and future GPS receivers to filter out extraneous signals be part of the solution.

“It is clear that LightSquared threatens the FAA’s multi-billion dollar investment in the NextGen satellite-based air transportation system and the thousands of jobs that will be created as a result,” said GAMA President Pete Bunce. “The safety of general aviation and the traveling public relies on a secure and reliable GPS network. LightSquared’s revised proposal fails to protect aviation use of GPS. It must be rejected to allow the aviation industry to modernize and grow.”

AOPA and GAMA characterized LightSquared’s counterproposal as “extremely far-fetched in the aviation context.”

LightSquared “assumes that suitable filters will soon become available. No evidence suggests that will be the case. Absolutely no filters exist today that can reliably protect GPS from LightSquared interference,” wrote Melissa Rudinger, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs, and Jens Hennig, GAMA vice president of operations. The FAA’s own impact statement concluded that “no realistic chance exists that a suitable interference solution can be invented, qualified for aviation use, and certified for installation across the fleet in less than ten to fifteen years,” they said.

Given the threats to the GPS-based Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) from the LightSquared network proposal, and technological hurdles to a solution, offering a six-month standstill “is really no offer at all,” they said.

With LightSquared having “entirely failed” to show that its operations are compatible with GPS despite “ample time” for that demonstration, the associations said, the FCC should withdraw its authorization and initiate a rulemaking process to ensure that issues raised in the case are “fully reviewed and approved by the FAA and the Department of Defense before such proposals receive any type of conditional or permanent authorization from the FCC.”

In the months since LightSquared obtained its conditional waiver, opposition has grown across aviation and other industries along with awareness of the risks posed by the high-powered network for GPS, as Fuller detailed in congressional testimony June 23.

In May AOPA reported that many elected officials, concerned about the impact on aviation and other GPS users—such as agriculture—had joined in calling on FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to revisit the network approval process. An FCC bureau conditionally approved the network plan before technical study results were available, and without review by the full FCC.