FCC moves to suspend LightSquared network

February 15, 2012

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), acting on a technical committee’s recommendation, will move to suspend LightSquared’s bid to develop a mobile satellite network that has been proven to interfere with GPS reception.

AOPA President Craig Fuller welcomed the decision, saying it could end a threat that has loomed for the last year to aviation and other users of GPS. The FCC action recognized both the growing importance of GPS to the modernization of the air traffic system and the intractability of the GPS-jamming problem caused by LightSquared’s technology, he said. The company’s conditional approval has allowed it to use powerful terrestrial transmissions on “repurposed” portions of the broadcast spectrum, but those transmissions have been shown to overwhelm the far weaker GPS signals.

On Feb. 14, the FCC issued a statement announcing that it had accepted recommendations of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) technical panel that studied the problem and found no practical solutions to GPS interference. That opinion, rendered unanimously in a Jan. 13 letter, concluded that no fix was possible for months—or perhaps years—that would permit the network to operate “without significantly interfering with GPS.”

“NTIA, the federal agency that coordinates spectrum uses for the military and other federal government entities, has now concluded that there is no practical way to mitigate potential interference at this time,” said the FCC in a statement posted on its website. “Consequently, the Commission will not lift the prohibition on LightSquared. The International Bureau of the Commission is proposing to (1) vacate the Conditional Waiver Order, and (2) suspend indefinitely LightSquared’s Ancillary Terrestrial Component authority to an extent consistent with the NTIA letter.”

A public notice seeking comment on the NTIA’s conclusions and the FCC’s proposed actions was posted Feb. 15.

Fuller, who testified before a congressional subcommittee Feb. 8 to urge protection of GPS from present and future threats, welcomed the FCC’s conclusion, which came just more than a year since LightSquared received its approval that was subject to the technical analysis now in hand at the FCC. Fuller also testified before Congress on June 23, 2011, telling members that LightSquared’s network was “a toxic drug” that needed to be recalled.

“Pilots use GPS in all phases of flight from takeoff through landing, and GPS-based approaches permit all-weather access to some 2,000 airports not served by ground-based systems,” he said in response to the FCC statement. “Ongoing work to modernize our air traffic infrastructure will only increase our reliance on GPS, so keeping the system accessible and free from interference is critical to ensuring that we continue to have the safest aviation system in the world.”

Fuller strongly encouraged the government agencies whose decisions affect GPS “to work together to establish policies that will ensure the system remains intact and accessible for the long term.”

AOPA has been an active member of the multi-industry Coalition to Save Our GPS that has called for the FCC to take action to stop the hedge fund-financed wireless network since the test results showed an intractable interference problem caused by its powerful ground-based transmissions. Last November, the coalition filed a request with the FCC to permanently prohibit LightSquared from transmitting in the upper portion of its allocated spectrum, based on tests calling into doubt the merits of the company’s plan to “repurpose” those bands for terrestrial transmissions. Over the course of the year, the FCC has received numerous letters from members of Congress and government departments asserting the need for a more transparent review process and broader participation by the full FCC and its chairman, Julius Genachowski.

In its Feb. 14 announcement, the FCC also discussed the importance of public and private-sector stakeholders working together to increase spectrum availability for mobile broadband use.

But the agency also acknowledged that open processes that rely on “the active, timely, and full participation of all stakeholders” were critical to achieving those goals.

LightSquared, in a Feb. 14 news release, said that it “remains committed” to finding a solution to its network’s GPS jamming problem, and said it “profoundly disagrees” with the NTIA panel’s recommendation.

The company was already reeling from a series of setbacks. As the LightSquared prospects have deteriorated, its investors learned in December that the venture’s chief financial backer, Harbinger Capital Partners—invested in the LightSquared project for $2.9 billion—faced a securities inquiry. Reports soon followed that the hedge fund had dragged its feet when responding to client requests to cash out their stakes in the venture.