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Congress Moves to Protect GPS Users from LightSquared Interference

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May 27, 2011

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report on the level of interference between LightSquared’s proposed mobile broadband network and GPS receivers is due in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the fight over final approval of the system has rolled into the halls of Congress.

On Thursday (May 26) the House approved an amended 2012 Defense Authorization bill requiring the Federal Communications Commission to withhold full approval of the LightSquared 4G-LTE system and disallow operations until interference issues with military receivers are resolved.The FCC granted LightSquared a waiver on January 26, allowing the firm to repurpose frequency licenses used to supplement its satellite-based service for use in a ground-based network. The frequencies are adjacent to those used by GPS, and final approval of the system was conditioned on working out interference and power overload issues with the GPS community.

The new provision, set forth in Section 911 of the authorization bill, is much stronger than the original measure, which only required the Defense Department to report interference problems to Congress and submit a plan for addressing them.

“Our military is heavily reliant on an uninterrupted GPS capability to do their jobs,” said the amendment’s sponsor Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio). “The risk to our forces of the widespread denial of GPS was too great and required action.”

The new version also mandates the FCC to make the final report on LightSquared/GPS testing available to Congress and permit all interested parties to comment — a requirement that could slow the fast-tracked LightSquared project. Finally, in a move that may head off future jurisdictional squabbles, the  FCC’s decision  documents will now go to the two committees in both the House and Senate tasked with overseeing the Defense Department and the FCC. The Senate has yet to take up its version of the bill.

Though the measure was substantially stronger than its initial, the real bite was in the House Report that accompanied the bill. Such reports are meant to give congressional perspective on the action items within legislation and, in this case, the message was decidedly frosty.

Underscoring that the FCC did not conduct an interference study before granting LightSquared a waiver, the committee said it was “disappointed that the FCC proceeded … prior to any study and resolution of the GPS interference issue.” Moreover, it called on the FCC to “indefinitely postpone final decision until the harmful interference issue has been resolved, with the full …approval of the Department of Defense.”

The report writers also pointedly reminded the Secretary of Defense that “the Secretary may not agree to any restriction on the Global Positioning System . . . that would adversely affect the military potential of the Global Positioning System.”

The defense-focused amendment passed the House less than a week after a third of the nation’s senators signed a letter to the FCC expressing concern “that LightSquared’s proposal places an unacceptable risk to public safety through interference with GPS receivers necessary for aviation, first responders, agriculture, construction, maritime navigation, E-911, and national defense systems.”

The bipartisan group of 33 senators, led by Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., asked the FCC to rescind the waiver until LightSquared could “demonstrate non-interference of GPS.”

"We fully appreciate the interest of some members of Congress in the FCC's review of LightSquared's proposal to provide 4G-LTE service in the L-Band,” said Jeffrey J. Carlisle, LightSquared’s vice president for regulatory affairs and public policy. “GPS is a vital service to the United States, and LightSquared is committed to identifying and resolving any interference issues.”

The firm, which took out large color ads in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal underscoring their proposal’s advantages, may be facing another round of congressional ire. A new letter asserting that the FCC “recklessly fast-tracked the waiver process” is making the rounds in the House of Representatives. Working to gather support for the letter are Reps. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, Steve Austria, R-Ohio, Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Ralph Hall, R-Texas.

The FCC, the four say, should “only grant final approval to LightSquared if the company can indisputably demonstrate that their proposal will not interfere with GPS technology.

Dee Ann Divis is assistant managing editor – news at the Washington (D.C.) Examiner and the Washington View columnist for Inside GNSS magazine.

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