WASHINGTON: It has all the hallmarks of what could have become a very embarrassing political and technical scandal. A company called LightSquared got provisional permission from the chairman of the FCC to go ahead with a 4G system that the military said — unequivocally — would jam the crucial signals from Global Positioning System satellites.
The company is politically connected and plays tough on Capitol Hill. Although tests by GPS companies and by the government’s National Telecommunications and Information Assurance Administration have demonstrated to most government officials’ satisfaction that LightSquared’s technology would jam GPS receivers and signals, the company continues to argue that the tests are questionable or that the company can fix the issues raised by the tests.
Now, finally, the FCC has signaled that it is unlikely to grant LightSquared permission to build thousands of 4G towers around the country that senior Pentagon officials have said could jam the country’s new GPS air traffic control system, among other things. It issued a call yesterday for public comments about its intent to effectively kill the LightSquared plan.
As the CEO of LightSquared put it succinctly in a statement to reporters: “Yesterday, after LightSquared had already spent nearly $4 billion, the FCC changed its mind. There can be no more devastating blow to private industry and confidence in the consistency of the FCC’s decision-making process.”
But the question remains: why did the FCC let things go this far?
One expert who has followed the saga from the beginning said the FCC simply did not do a very good job reviewing the proposed system.
“I do think that Light Squared was badly served by the FCC itself. The issues that arose should have been very evident to anyone familiar with the technology,” said a former senior DoD official who knows GPS issues intimately. Part of the problem is that the, “FCC has so lost its satellite engineering capacity that they frankly didn’t know any better.”
The technical problem confronting LightSquared and the country is that the GPS signal is weak and diffuse as it comes to Earth from satellites and Light Squared’s technology overwhelms it. Air Force Gen. William Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, told reporters last year at the Air Force Association winter conference that a plane flying near one of the thousands of towers LightSquared plans to build would lose the GPS signal guiding it within 12 miles of a company tower.
As the NTIA puts it on its web page about LightSquared interference: “Although LightSquared will operate in its own radio band, that band is so close to the GPS signals that most GPS devices pick up the stronger LightSquared signal and become overloaded or jammed.
“There is also concern that the FCC may approve a technical solution to the problem that requires millions of existing GPS users to upgrade or replace their devices.”
In the end, after testing by it and other government entities, the NTIA concluded: “The results clearly demonstrate that implementing LightSquared’s planned deployment for terrestrial operations poses a significant potential for harmful interference to GPS services.
But LightSquared clearly will go down fighting. Ahuja’s statement yesterday makes this very clear: “It is not surprising that, as with all innovative new technologies, scientific concerns became an issue. In this case, the government decided to choose winners and losers. Politicians, rather than engineers and scientists, dictated the solution to the problem from Washington.
“To leave this problem unresolved is the height of bureaucratic irresponsibility and undermines the very principles that once made America the best place in the world to do business. We remain committed to finding a solution and believe that if all the parties have that same level of commitment, a solution can be found. The American people send their representatives to Washington to solve tough problems and make our country better – not to undermine and pull the rug from under private enterprise.”
I read this statement to the former DoD official. “I’m in tears,” he said, with just a hint of sarcasm
How did a company get what now looks like a fundamentally flawed concept this far through the system? It offered what appeared to be a technical solution to a policy problem — lack of broadband outside the country’s major metropolitan areas — identified by the government. And everyone wanted it to work, the former DoD official believes. LightSquared also played a very intelligent game, initially buying “a piece of bandwidth allocated to the mobile subscriber systems –satellite based. Then they got the FCC to convert it to a terrestrial service and they substantially upped the value of what they had bought,” the former DoD official said.
Now that the government system, which the DoD official believes failed LightSquared and the country, has concluded the 4G system just won’t work, “We are obliged to answer the question now — what would work. The government is not ignoring it. The government is not going to leave it unresolved.”
But let’s all hope the government makes fewer mistakes next time.