They Couldn't Jam GPS, Could They?

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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.

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Comments (22)


I'm with you, Russ. I don't think this is going to be a trivial struggle at all. I have to say that, in the final analysis, the military card is probably going to carry the game - which probably means the GPS bandwidth is safe. But this assumes the military understands what's at stake and uses its influence to affect the result.

By the way, is it just me, or does Genachowski's voice bear an eerie similarity to Carl Sagan's...? Just asking.

Posted by: ANTHONY NASR | July 7, 2011 1:14 AM    Report this comment

I find it incredible that a government agency, the FCC, is even considering a plan that presents even a risk to the popular GPS service enjoyed by everyone in the USA - both government and the private sector.

With all the money at risk here, it is reasonable to suspect some level of corruption of any government employee that supports any aspect of this fiasco. It would be reasonable to start secret investigations of the personal finances of all government employees who even suggest a leaning toward this high dollar venture. If indeed these bureaucrats have accepted bribes to help this big program along they should be publicly punished for this corruption. Since this presents a much more significant risk to our way of life than any terrorist could even dream of causing it is reasonable to have investigators write their own search warrants without judicial review.

We all know our government is run on corrupt practices in congress where lobbyists pay huge sums of money for "Reelection Treasure Chests" for members of congress to get their wishes made into laws. It doesn't take much of a leap of faith to suspect the corruption goes deeper than just congress.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | July 7, 2011 5:09 AM    Report this comment

Clearly aviation based GPS users have much to lose here if "interference" affects approaches, especially with trends to eliminate ILS systems. Probably the best source of help in "our" corner would come from military or police users. They have a very compelling public service argument. However, one needs to be realistic here. The FCC traditionally has left corrective matters of signal overload to the receiver user and company, and will not burden the transmitter operator as long as the transmitter is operating within regulation specification. Because of this long standing legal view, I would be very surprised if 4G was moved or prevented from installing systems at all, let alone in proximity to airports. I hope I am incorrect here, but the historical matter in which FCC has approached matters like this leaves me no other conclusion.

Posted by: DAVID RODMAN | July 7, 2011 5:33 AM    Report this comment

I'm surprised the U.S. Department of Defense, who operate the GPS satellite constellation, for use in navigating UAVs and tanks, targeting missiles, and other important things, hasn't weighed in on this issue. One wonders if LightSquared's investors have contemplated their liability exposure in the event an airliner on approach were to crash.

Posted by: Larry Dighera | July 7, 2011 6:33 AM    Report this comment

Maybe a bigger problem is just how easy it is for the GPS to be jammed. Think of the NextGen activities and how much it dependent on this now brought to light lack of dependability. It won't take a genus to wipe GPS signals out over a very large area. Does terrorist, of other counties we happen to be bombing this week come to mind?

Posted by: calvin smith | July 7, 2011 7:01 AM    Report this comment

A piece of the argument (that Lightsquared used) is being forgotten. They are trying to use their "backup" ground stations to provide the service because they "forgot" to order, or are just being too cheap to put up the satellite to provide the service. This way everyone else pays.
A large block of frequencies on both sides of the GPS bands are designated for Satellite to Earth transmission - very very low power when reaching the earth, from the typical 5w transmitter on the bird. GPS won't be the only thing affected ultimately, but it is the first.

And someone should be asking the other half of the question too ... 40,000 of "their" transmitters are talking to how many million receivers, that need to talk back to their transmitters? And none of those are even part of the discussion!

Posted by: Dan Tomlinson | July 7, 2011 7:05 AM    Report this comment

Light squared should be stopped in it's tracks. They are involved in all sorts of unethical deals with their white house buddies; Obviously, GPS would be ruined. There is no need for debate. Ridiculous!!

Posted by: RUTH PRESTON | July 7, 2011 7:26 AM    Report this comment

Keep your ADF and VOR and get re-acquainted with your compass. As said, many things easily over power the tiny GPS signal that reaches us from orbit (accidental and intentional disruptions).

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 7, 2011 7:40 AM    Report this comment

Hey, I've got an idea. They can put in their 40k ground stations if they put in 40k GPS transmitters on their towers that are a billion times more powerful than their data transmitters and see how that works. Obviously I'm being facetious, because if they want to exist in the low power band they should be limited to low power.

Don't forget though, the gubbermint is never right and corporations are never wrong. Corporations only have America's best interests at heart. Why is there even a useless agency trying to make life harder for this business anyway? (cue crying, sparkly, eagle)

Well, this is why. Tell all your friends their GPS is going to need replacing and have them write their congress critters.

Posted by: Jesse Derks | July 7, 2011 8:01 AM    Report this comment

Ironically enough Mark I was doing lost procedures yesterday, and limited myself to only a map and NAV radios. I consider it good airmanship to be able to use all of the tools in the plane possible. You never know when you'll need them.

Posted by: Jesse Derks | July 7, 2011 8:05 AM    Report this comment

Hey this isn't the first time that the FCC has gone off the reservation without informing other agencies, specifically the FAA. Remember last year when they declared with about 60-days notice that all 121.5MHz ELT's were to be banned from use?

Then, while the FAA has been trumpeting Next Gen, and we in GA have been all trying to figure out why this will be a good thing for us even if it costs $10K to equip our aircraft to participate, the FCC has come out from under their rock to torpedo the whole underlying technical premise of Next Gen.

I am not sure that we as GPS users are, or should be on the hook to modify our equipment to facilitate the Light Squared plan. I know from experience that designers and manufacturers of electronic equipment such are responsible for making sure that spurious emmissions are designed out of the devices to avoid interference with existing equipment (such as other consumenr electronics). Seems to me that that principle should apply here. How many manufacturers of consumer electronics realize that they are going to be similarly bound if they wish to play in Light Squared's sand box?

Posted by: David MacRae | July 7, 2011 9:04 AM    Report this comment

The FCC can't find 20 mHz of spectrum anywhere? Are you sure? And where on the list of priorities for use of the radio spectrum does "watching Opra while waiting for the bus" fall?

Posted by: Malcolm Mcleod | July 7, 2011 9:06 AM    Report this comment

Keeping current on ADF and VOR misses the point entirely. When you're flying an RNP/LPV approach, you're depending on WAAS GPS for the entire shooting match; there is no reversion.

Those are the approaches of the future, not NDBs. Splattering GPS renders them useless and/or dangerous. What this is about is transportation infrastructure, not recreational flyers out for a Saturday toot, although that's part of it.

Bottom line: This is critical competition between industrial infrastructure, because that national broadband is wanted badly by the market whether the White House is involved at all. iPads and smartphones outnumber GPS by several factors, I am sure.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 7, 2011 9:07 AM    Report this comment

Point being is life and death. If you are solely dependent on GPS then you're screwed when IFR. That's why VOR/ILS/ADF and compass skills are the only thing that will keep you alive at that point. It's sad how many pilots can't fly without a magenta line, even under VFR.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 7, 2011 10:09 AM    Report this comment

Well, it couldn't happen, could it?

If you believe this, ask the Amateur Radio community (ARRL) about THEIR fight with the FCC concerning Broadband Over Power Lines (BOPL). The braodband signals were poorly shielded and prevented communications over a large part of the HF bands.

The projects have just about died, after 8 years or so, as no one is using it, although some local governments are still spending tens of thousands per year to keep this poorly engineered fiasco running.

Posted by: Jim Pearsall | July 7, 2011 11:08 AM    Report this comment

Let's see, I use GPS in my car, airplane and on my smartphone. Many others use it hiking, on their boats, police, fire, 911,... So along comes LightSquared and they are going to blow this all away? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!?!?

What on earth ever happened to common sense? Has it vanished from our lexicon?

Posted by: Ric Lee | July 7, 2011 11:33 AM    Report this comment

As an "RF guy" I can agree in principal with the long-standing general policy that the onus of protection from out-of-band signals should lie with the receiver.

In this case, however, GPS was developed from the get-go based on the premise that the spectrum cops (FCC) would continue to maintain the wide guard-band of protection from powerful nearby signals that the adjacent satellite downlink block assignments provided. The millions of GPS receivers embedded in cell phones and similar small devices could never have been produced at such a level of miniaturization (in both size & cost) if they had been required to somehow include the level of selective filtering this new scheme envisions.

One of the factors in play here is that our government is trying to do broadband on the cheap, substituting wireless for applications that would be much better served by pouring the money into replacing copper cable with optical fiber. There simply isnít enough RF spectrum available to give many-megabit wireless speeds to the whole population so itís just another case of kicking the can down the road.

Posted by: John Wilson | July 7, 2011 11:54 AM    Report this comment

The FCC is a MUCH more easily influenced body than the FAA. The appointees are not examined very closely and come to the agency with all manner of hidden agendas.
In the case of Lightsquared, large sums of money have been put in motion and that has attracted the attention of the political sector, members of whom are always looking for a quid pro quo.
Of course, the military has been strangely silent on this and I cannot see how they will not also be affected.

Posted by: Walter Freeman | July 7, 2011 12:01 PM    Report this comment

Maybe the military is silent because they are working 50 gigawatt GPS transmitters to replace the 5 watt units now in use. Then Lightsquared will suffer the splatter problem they inflicted on us. Seriously, I was about to buy an aviation GPS, but I won't risk it at this time because of this issue. Jobs will be lost in the GPS industry, but they can take comfort in watching Oprah while waiting for the bus. Of course, the bus will get lost because its GPS is blanked by Lightsquared.

Posted by: Tom Mitchell | July 7, 2011 5:29 PM    Report this comment

All this makes about as much sense as putting a strip bar in a shopping mall ... some ideas are just plain darn dumb, regardless of how much money can be made.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | July 8, 2011 2:26 AM    Report this comment

Well, Maybe we need to bring back Loran and ADF. I'm glad I haven't spent the $$$ for a Garmin unit. Can't wait to see Garmin enter the fray. They have the most $$$ to loose on this F'd up deal.

Posted by: Richard Mutzman | July 10, 2011 7:55 PM    Report this comment

GPS should not be sharing nearby spectrum with any High Power Radio Service. The proposed Lightsquare service at any wavelegth near GPS frequency is not compatable. The spectrum near that of GPS should be used for Low-power applications only.

Posted by: Edward Vetter | July 11, 2011 5:17 PM    Report this comment

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