December 28, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
What happens when a high-powered mobile-satellite network uses frequencies adjacent to those that are used for the much weaker signals on which GPS operates? Widespread failure of GPS receivers and a threat to GPS-based infrastructure—including the Next Generation Air Transportation System results.
Throughout 2011, controversy flared between Reston, Va.-based LightSquared, a hedge-fund-financed wireless venture, and GPS users and their government supporters over the technologically troubling turn of events. To AOPA and other members of the coalition formed to protect GPS, it was clear that the Federal Communications Commission had put the grade before the exam last January when it granted LightSquared conditional permission to use powerful ground transmitters for its network on those frequencies without testing to see if GPS would be affected. Tests last spring confirmed fears that GPS could be overwhelmed.
GPS supporters in Congress joined in calling for the FCC to take a new, cautious approach to the LightSquared application, with some, including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) demanding to know whether Harbinger Capital Partners chief Philip Falcone had exerted political influence to fast-track the application of his communications start-up.
Wall Street was nervous by fall. Harbinger, which had staked LightSquared to $2.9 billion, was notified of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of previous trading, and reports said that some Harbinger investors wanted to yank their investments, but couldn’t get at their cash. As the year ended, LightSquared was publicly predicting FCC approval of its network proposal early in 2012, while critics pointed out that the interference problems remained.
By the end of the year, GA and the GPS industry saw a major victory when Congress included a provision in the omnibus appropriations bill that would prohibit the FCC from using funds to remove the conditions imposed on LightSquared or permit operations, until the commission has resolved concerns of potential widespread harmful interference to GPS.
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Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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