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Analysis: LightSquared plays the patriot card in spectrum battle


LightSquared has gotten craftier in its public relations campaign against the GPS device industry. Last week it filed a letter with the FCC and issued a public statement that essentially painted a picture of GPS device makers as having willfully ignored government recommendations on GPS receiver design, placing themselves squarely in the interference jam that would result if LightSquared’s proposed long-term evolution network goes live (CP: Sorting out the LightSquared GPS interference mess)

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These weren’t just any random recommendations. They came from the U.S. Department of Defense, which launched the Global Positioning System satellite network in the first place and is the closest thing the GPS industry has to a standards body. In 2008, the DoD issued a Standard Positioning Service Performance Standard that set guidelines for receiver design aimed at avoiding interference from other L-band transmitters. The gist of it is that receivers need to filter out adjacent airwaves to prevent them from overpowering GPS signals. LightSquared also pointed to similar recommendations made by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) back in 2000. Here’s an excerpt from LightSquared’s statement:

“Given the DoD’s clear recommendations and the long-standing ITU warnings, it is not credible for the GPS industry to now claim that it is not responsible for the flawed design of its receivers. By demanding that LightSquared be prevented from building a ground service that has been authorized for years, the GPS manufacturers are simply trying to formalize squatting for free on someone else’s licensed spectrum.”

The standard, however, is an internal requirement for DoD devices that serves as a recommendation for device makers using GPS signals for commercial services. Except for those guidelines imposed by specific industries--such as aviation or cellular--or organizations--such as the Defense Department--there is no formal standards body or certification process for GPS. The GPS constellation blankets the U.S. with signals and anyone is free to use those signals as they please.

LightSquared acknowledges that the performance standard is not a mandate to GPS device makers, but there’s still a pretty big accusation implied in its statement: If it’s good enough for Uncle Sam, why isn’t it good enough for Garmin or John Deere?

As you might expect, the GPS device vendors aren’t taking this lying down. The Save Our GPS Coalition issued its own press statement claiming that LightSquared was making up the rules it wanted GPS device makers to follow:

“LightSquared has completely mischaracterized the 2008 DoD GPS Signal in Space (SIS) standards. In fact, DoD specifically said that the receiver characteristics it detailed ‘are not intended to impose any minimum requirements on receiver manufacturers or integrators,’ and they do not specify commercial GPS receiver performance standards.”

LightSquared, however, is claiming fair warning. The FCC first began designating ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) waivers in 2003 (CP: Satellite’s time has come). In 2004, LightSquared, then known as SkyTerra, was granted its first ATC waiver and announced its plans to build a ground-based wireless network. LightSquared’s position is that GPS device manufactures have known this day was coming for eight years. While some in the GPS industry like the DoD and some smartphone makers have adequately prepared for the inevitable launch of LTE in the L-band, LightSquared claims, most GPS device makers have done nothing.

The GPS industry would consider that a gross exaggeration if not an outright misrepresentation of how the ATC requirement was implemented. When the FCC started granting ATC waivers, they were intended to supplement satellite communications in urban areas, not replace them entirely. The GPS coalition was expecting a relay network similar to one XM Satellite uses to provide coverage in urban canyons where satellite signals can’t penetrate. Only in January did the FCC grant LightSquared a full waiver to offer terrestrial-only service, effectively taking the “ancillary” out of ATC (CP: LightSquared gets its wavier—with a caveat).

According to the coalition, LightSquared was given an inch and it took several miles—and the FCC has so far let the operator get away with it. Consequently the GPS industry was expecting the interference equivalent of mild rain, but now it faces a hurricane.

Who’s right? Your guess is as good mine. The complexity of this debate is staggering and if you ask either side they’re baffled there is a debate at all. Each side believes they’re unquestionable in the right. Either way, the FCC will decide the issue, and someone isn’t going to be happy with the decision.


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