When I first heard of LightSquared's ambitious plan to blanket the U.S. with wireless broadband and, apparently smother GPS at the same time my reaction was the same as most of those I spoke with following the incredible revelation. You can tell by the tone of my first story that I couldn't believe what I was writing. Jam GPS, a virtual public utility, government owned and with uses that find their way into the lives of virtually every American? You've got to be kidding, right?
Well, as we've discovered, LightSquared is not kidding and, strangely enough, at least one arm of the government appears to be behind the audacious plan. Now, it should be mentioned up front that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has stated unequivocally that he's not going to let LightSquared darken 500 million GPS-dependent devices. That is not the same thing as saying he'll reject the plan, however, and that's where things get interesting.
We've covered the whole issue from the start, and there is plenty of back and forth between LightSquared, the Coalition to Save Our GPS and the government about the threat to GPS. However, the debate missed the larger issue and the fact that LightSquared's plan represents a simple and elegant partial solution to one of the most difficult issues facing the U.S. Put simply, the U.S. is out of radio frequencies to exploit for the exponential growth of consumer and industrial products that need a little slice of what is called the spectrum to work their magic.
In the accompanying video (sorry, no shiny planes or neat gadgets, just a guy talking) Genachowski lays out the National Broadband Plan, in which he commits to finding 500 MHz of spectrum to ensure room for everyone's iPad and smartphone. To put that in perspective, the rancor and the billions of dollars being bet on the LightSquared plan are about a frequency band of just 20 MHz of spectrum. However, if it can be made to work, it takes a huge weight off the FCC in ensuring the supply of signals that allow us to watch Oprah while we wait for the bus.
The obvious question and the solution posed by the GPS forces is to simply move LightSquared to another set of frequencies where it won't drown out GPS. That gets back to the big issue, though. There simply isn't any spectrum left that isn't spoken for and trying to pry that away from television, radio, amateur radio, astronomers and whoever else is claiming their share of a very finite pie won't be any easier than the process we're involved in.
The FCC has all the information, and it's acknowledged the GPS problem, but if you read the words carefully from their spokespeople, it's clear they're not giving up on LightSquared's plan. They talk instead about finding technical fixes to deal with the interference. And that's where you come in. Technical fixes cost money, and someone has to pay. It ain't going to be the FCC, and LightSquared has made it clear that it believes the GPS industry is to blame for allowing its signals to affect their devices.
That leaves the GPS industry and, by extension, its customers to cover that cost, assuming it's even possible to deal with the problem.
My colleague Mary Grady tells of an eight-year battle in Rhode Island about the proposed construction of a liquid natural gas facility on a beautiful bay and how years of public pressure and sustained resistance simply made it go away. I don't think the same tactic will work here. The timelines are too short, and the pressure on the government to find solutions is too great. What should be of concern to every pilot is how finding those solutions will affect them.