Homeland Security Steps Up to Protect GPS (But Not from LightSquared)
The Washington View
DHS may pick up the pace on its six-year-long stroll for meeting mandates on GPS interference, while the FCC presses on with LightSquared broadband plan in L1 spectrum.
After a long series of fits and starts, the Department of Homeland Security is tackling the issue of interference to the GPS signal. The agency has launched a study to assess the risks to GPS service from a variety of sources — a study that, at least on paper, will lead to a plan to mitigate interference.
Unfortunately, the effort will not directly address the one potential problem consuming the thoughts of the GPS community — widespread receiver overload from the high-powered mobile broadband service proposed by the Virginia firm LightSquared.
Launched by DHS last year as part of its mandate to protect GPS signals from interference, the study is called the National Risk Estimate: Risks to U.S. Critical Infrastructure from Global Positioning System Disruptions – or NRE, for those concerned about running out of printer ink.
The NRE will weigh whether and how disruptions to the GPS signal would affect five key sectors: banking and finance, communications, emergency services, energy, and transportation systems. The research is supposed to assess both current risks — such as those from cigarette lighter-sized jammers that some truckers have been using to escape management scrutiny — and evaluate future risks to critical services using the GPS signal.
According to sources knowledgeable of the NRE work, who spoke on condition of anonymity, DHS is developing interference scenarios and will be evaluating how likely those scenarios are to occur. It’s a snapshot of how dependent we have become on satellite navigation.
To do this, DHS is reaching out directly to private companies and state and local governments and is working with the Departments of Treasury and Energy to tap financial and energy companies for their perspective. Also providing input are the intelligence community and the Departments of Defense, Transportation, Interior and Commerce through the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing and the National Infrastructure Protection Plan Partnership Framework, DHS said in a written statement in response to questions from Washington View.
The different agencies are providing or suggesting experts for the study and will “provide support” while the estimate is being written and reviewed, DHS said.
A Knight for GPS?
The Homeland Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center is in charge of the NRE. The center is part of the Office of Infrastructure Protection, which in turn is a division of the National Protection and Programs Directorate.
This may reflect a change in direction within DHS. Responsibility for protecting GPS has, since the end of 2004, been residing in an entirely different division — within the office of the agency’s Chief Information Officer. The CIO is under the Homeland Security’s Under Secretary for Management.
The specific office leading the charge for GPS has been the Office of Applied Technology’s Geospatial Management Office. A glance at the directive setting things up gives a hint as to why this office is a responsibility of the Under Secretary for Management. The management division is in charge of information systems (as well as human resources, accounting, facilities management, and so forth). This is the group responsible for making GPS data useable, useful, and shareable for those within DHS.
Given its responsibilities DHS has a great need for accurate, interoperable GPS devices and services; so, having the DHS CIO in charge of a GPS-focused office makes a lot of sense.
But all those who spoke to Washington View agreed that the protect-the-signal part of DHS’s mandate has languished under the current structure. Experts familiar with DHS’s efforts over the years said changes in leadership and a lack of funding have hampered efforts to develop a signal protection plan.
The risk estimate, however, is different. Responsibility for the NRE is in the hands of those specifically tasked with protecting the nation’s infrastructure.
Should responsibility for protecting GPS actually become part of NPPD’s official portfolio, it will fall under the responsibility of DHS Under Secretary Rand Beers, who is well known within security circles.
Beers has served on the National Security Council under both parties and four administrations and was the NSC’s special assistant to the president and senior director for combating terrorism from 2002-03. He retired in 2003 and eventually became the national security advisor for the Kerry-Edwards campaign. He later led Obama’s homeland security transition team and was the first aide chosen by the current DHS Secretary, Janet Napolitano.
Beers’ expertise, reputation, and position could be instrumental in successfully completing the NRE and several additional efforts DHS has underway to protect GPS.
First, there is to be a separate assessment “to identify current and possible future ways to mitigate” against disruptions to the signal, according to DHS.
Second, DHS is working on the PNT Incident Portal, which it said is modeled after the Federal Aviation Administration’s Spectrum Engineering Tracking System. The portal, DHS told Washington View, is being now being finalized.
Third, DHS is working on a sensor system called Patriot Watch. The department said it is continuing to “test and evaluate many technical capabilities for the spoofing, detecting, and locating sources of PNT interference.” They envision, they told Washington View, an “open architecture” and “multi-phased approach” that” will allow for the integration of various sensors using a common data exchange format.”
Finally, DHS is also tasked with preventing the hostile use of GPS in the United States. When asked about this responsibility, DHS confirmed its role — established by the U.S. Space Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Policy of December 8, 2004 — without elaborating on how the department would handle the task. They emphasized, however, they would work with “all U.S. Government agencies” on the issue.
Also unclear is how far along either the Incident Portal or Patriot Watch are in their development. At least one source knowledgeable about the effort suggested that Patriot Watch is still largely a PowerPoint system.
There have, however, been some recent technological developments that could be very useful in building out a Patriot Watch-type network.
There’s an App For That
A similar concept has now received some federal backing — though not from DHS.
NAVSYS Corporation has begun work under a new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract to develop an application for Android-based cell phones to detect GPS jamming and provide “situational awareness on the effect of known GPS jammers.”
As one might surmise from the phraseology, this is a battlefield application. The Colorado Springs, Colorado, firm is building on its JLOC (GPS Jammer Location) system — which is currently in use by warfighters, according to the contract announcement. The objective is to develop and test an app for a cell phone that provides “JLOC sensor reports using its internal GPS.” A second phase of the project will be developed based on user feedback.
One of the attractions of the approach, according to DARPA, is that it would be easy to disseminate such an app though Google’s market place — this would certainly be true for a civilian version as well. As one can imagine, hundreds of handhelds calling in interference reports could create a natural network for detecting and triangulating on jamming sources. Indeed, NAVSYS has told Washington View, the company “will continue to promote the advantages of a civilian GPS jammer location capability as the project progresses.”
DHS may also be able to crib a few techniques from the Europeans.
GAARDIAN and SENTINEL
The sensors themselves can process some data in real-time and report any problems immediately. A central server collects and combines the results from across the network to “determine the geographical extent of any interference or other anomalous behavior.”
With money already in hand from the U.K.’s Technology Strategy Board, the Brits will soon launch a follow-on project called SENTINEL (SErvices Needing Trust In Navigation, Electronics, Location & timing). SENTINEL aims to enhance the sensors so that interference sources can be pinpointed and officials can determine if the source is accidental, natural, or a deliberate effort to jam GNSS signals.
SENTINEL will focus on protecting critical infrastructure — just the sort of research DHS might want to tap. Washington View has learned that DHS is working with agencies overseas with regard to the NRE. The department said it is working with the State Department to “address interference and spoofing through the International Committee on Global Navigation Satellite Systems (ICG) and associated international working groups.”
What about LightSquared?
First, the risk estimate is not looking at the issues that the LightSquared system raises.
“The NRE does not specifically address individual sources of possible interference,” DHS told Washington View. “Rather, the NRE assesses potential impacts to critical infrastructure from interference — regardless of its source — that disrupt the ability of critical infrastructure to use GPS-derived PNT information to support their missions.”
Second, although the impact data DHS is developing could be extremely helpful in understanding what is at stake in the LightSquared debate, it will not be available in time. The NRE is not due to be finished until late this year — months after the still-solid June 15 deadline for completion and analysis of tests to determine whether the LightSquared signals will interfere with GPS receivers.
And now, some very preliminary field tests in New Mexico have found that the LightSquared signal does cause interference.
The tests, conducted outdoors in April with typical fire and emergency services equipment, were intended only to determine whether or not there was interference and do not appear designed to characterize the interference.
In one seven-hour test by state police, location information about the test vehicle was inaccurate, according to officials familiar with the tests and a summary of the results. The automated vehicle location (AVL) system showed that the vehicle was moving when in fact it was parked. The receiver failed completely when the test vehicle was under the LightSquared test tower.
On ambulance equipment tested by county personnel the AVL was affected during most, but not all, of the test modes. Sometimes the AVL would show the vehicle to be moving when it was not. Sometimes it lost track of the vehicle. One Trimble receiver tested lost contact with all the GPS satellites about one-eighth of a mile from the test tower. When path tracking, some Garmin receivers appeared to be moving in random figure-8 and U-shaped patterns.
Jeffrey Carlisle, LightSquared’s executive vice president for regulatory affairs and public policy, declined to comment on the tests as he had not seen the specific results. He noted that the technical working group, set up at the direction of the FCC, was testing more than 200 units.
“These were tests that were done on a couple of different units, said Carlisle, “. . . this is really the point of the cooperative testing. Let’s see what the range of results is over a number of different devices and figure out the best way to mitigate from there.”
The independent New Mexico tests were done at the behest of the Federal Aviation Administration. In late March the FAA’s parent organization, the Department of Transportation (DoT) sent to the FCC a strongly worded letter, cosigned by Department of Defense (DoD), expressing concern about the LightSquared testing and how the results would be handled.
The two agencies also, reportedly, took their concerns to the White House. Washington View has confirmed that at least one meeting has taken place within the White House on the LightSquared issue, reportedly with the DoD and DoT though details on the meeting are unclear. A source, who asked not to be named, said that several White House offices are now working the issue.
The White House visit and the formation of the now 150-member Coalition to Save Our GPS has also caught the attention of the financial community. While financial and industry analysts seemed initially to dismiss the GPS overload issue as whining or a matter of poor receivers, they are now monitoring the situation very closely. That could be a tough development for LightSquared, which is rumored to be weighing an initial stock offering and does not need a perception of additional risk.
It is easy to see, though, why investors might be paying closer attention.
View from Capitol Hill
The end of April also saw a “Dear Colleague” letter from Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) seeking co-signers for a letter calling on the FCC to not compromise GPS in any way. A bi-partisan group of some half a dozen cosigners has already stepped forward, according to a spokesman for Nelson’s office.
Such a letter is probably best characterized as a shot across the FCC’s bow — a promise of consequences down the road should the FCC proceed injudiciously regarding LightSquared. Congressional ire, however, is a daily reality for administration officials and not necessarily a deal breaker.
The ante was upped on May 11 however, when FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker announced she was leaving June 3 to become the senior vice-president of government affairs for NBCUniversal. Her resignation was immediately controversial because she had recently voted “yes” on the NBC/Comcast merger.
The President must now appoint a replacement for Baker and for Commissioner Michael Copps, whose term expired at the end of 2010. Copps can continue to serve until the end of this Congress and can be renominated, though press reports suggest he will depart earlier.
Why is this important to GPS users? Both nominations have to go through the Senate for approval — giving the senators leverage to press the FCC on LightSquared.
It may not, however, come up soon enough. The commission only needs three commissioners to have a quorum. Even if Copps soon closes up his office, another commissioner would have to leave before the FCC would be forced to the table. The next term to expire is that of Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, which ends June 30, 2012.
Rep Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, successfully added a provision to the 2012 defense authorization bill requiring DOD to notify Congress if “a commercial communications service will cause or is causing widespread harmful interference with Global Positioning System receivers used by the Department of Defense.” DoD must provide a description of the firm and what is happening and, most interestingly, a plan for addressing the problem.
“We need assurances from the FCC and this Administration,” Turner said, “that it will fully resolve the harmful interference issue prior to granting LightSquared final authorization to provide service.”
The authorization bill, including the Turner amendment, will soon be considered by the full House, following its passage by the Armed Services Committee. FCC is also facing scrutiny over LightSquared by its own oversight committee.
The Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is looking into how the FCC does business and weighing rule changes that could, among other things, shift power away from the FCC chairman. During a May 13 hearing on the FCC’s work process, Rep. Charles F. Bass (R-NH) expressed concern for GPS spectrum and questioned the way the FCC has handled the issue. He is also not the only committee member following the LightSquared debate.
“There is a, I think, legitimate issue about what process was used in issuing the licenses to LightSquared,” subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said in response to a question from Washington View after the hearing.
Noting the ongoing tests Walden said that “first, and most critical, in that [LightSquared] discussion is to see what the independent labs come up with in terms of interference. If all of a sudden your GPS is getting interfered with as a consumer or a pilot — we’ve got a problem. And the FCC, I cannot imagine, will allow that to go forward.”
A Tough Spot
On the upside, if the FCC can quickly figure out how to green-light LightSquared and protect GPS, too, there is the prospect of jobs and a jump in telecom capacity which could ripple through into new applications and even more jobs — all in time to influence the election.
On the downside, if unaddressable interference with GPS devices does arise, the FCC may have to say no to LightSquared or delay the currently expedited process, potentially undermining its own broadband goals.
In the meantime the administration could be accused of siding with a rich, Wall Street trader against the nation’s little guys (receiver owners). It could be cast as being soft on defense.
If the administration requires GPS users to upgrade their receivers, it could enrage tens of thousands of budget-strapped state and local officials who don’t have the money to pay for new safety equipment. Of course the White House could offer to pay for the receivers — if there was any federal money to spare.
So, while GPS users and LightSquared have a lot on the line, it is the White House that may actually have the most to lose.
A Follow-Up Note and Clarification
“The Order released March 26, 2010 in document DA-10-535 was not taken down after it was released publicly,” responded FCC spokesman David Fiske. “It was included in the March 29, 2010 Daily Digest as an item released on March 26 but after the Daily Digest for that date had already been issued.”
The March/April column also indicated that the FCC had granted to MSV LP, a firm later acquired by LightSquared, a license for a terrestrial network of 1,725 ground stations. That should have read 1,725 ground stations per 200 kHz channel.
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