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Why the GPS industry needs to work with LightSquared


LightSquared faces a tough task. It not only has to find a fix for the interference problems its long-term evolution (LTE) creates for GPS, but it has to convince the FCC, the GPS device industry, government agencies and now lawmakers that its solution will work. The burden of proof definitely weighs heavily on the wholesale operator.

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But both the government and the GPS industry have every incentive to work with LightSquared to find that fix. For GPS device makers, the incentive is one of pure business interest: The mobile broadband networks LightSquared and other operators build will ultimately make their products more powerful and more useful. The advent of 3G sparked a revolution in GPS and location, providing a two-way data channel that added real-time context and information to mapping and location data. Assisted GPS in smartphones and feature phones has spawned a huge location-based services sector.

As mobile broadband scales, the potential exists for any conceivable consumer device to become connected wirelessly. We`re seeing it with laptops and tablets today. Soon we`ll see it in cameras, game consoles, digital media players and automobiles. In the vertical markets, agricultural and construction equipment, shipping containers, trucks and any manner of high-value industrial asset are being outfitted with machine-to-machine modules (M2M). As all of these mobile devices gain access to real-time information, their location context will become all the more important—a huge boon for the GPS industry.

But in order to support those billions of mobile broadband connections, the wireless industry is going to have to build a lot more networks over a lot of spectrum that wasn`t originally designated for cellular use. To get that kind of ubiquitous mobile broadband coverage, the FCC will have to clear not just the satellite L-band for wireless, but government and broadcast bands—by some estimates operators need to quintuple current spectrum resources to support the expected demand for mobile data (CP: The Mobile Data Paradox: Meeting the Mobile Data Demand). Regulators will have to scour the electromagnetic spectrum up and down to find new frequencies. Interference issues will abound and incumbent licensees are sure to protest.

The LightSquared ordeal is a harbinger of things to come. Every new band identified for terrestrial wireless will produce interference mitigation issues, long incumbent relocation timelines—plus delays—and ultimately FCC hearings. Not all bands will be suitable for mobile broadband, and the L-band may be the first to fail that test. But the FCC shouldn`t just give in to political pressure and simply yank LightSquared`s waiver until it fully explores every possibility for LTE and GPS`s coexistence in the L-band. If it does, the mobile broadband networks we envision serving gobs of bandwidth to billions of devices will simply never get built—unless you want your wireless networks running on X-rays.

I am not advocating the FCC simply give LightSquared a pass. A GPS technical working group report being released this week is expected to state that LightSquared`s original deployment plans aren`t feasible (Unfiltered: The LightSquared waiting game). LightSquared has proposed an alternate plan in which it would essentially forfeit half its network to create an ad hoc guard band between LTE and GPS, but LightSquared itself acknowledges there may still be some interference issues with high-precision GPS receivers (CP: LightSquared proposes swapping half its network for FCC approval). If that solution doesn`t work, then LightSquared, the government and the GPS industry need to look for another one. Ultimately if there is no solution to be found, then the network shouldn`t be built. GPS is just too important to risk.

But from the rhetoric we`re hearing from the GPS industry I don`t get the impression it wants to find a solution. To quote the Save Our GPS Coalition`s Jim Kirkland after LightSquared presented its alternate plan: “It`s time for LightSquared to move out of the [mobile satellite services] band.”

I can understand where the GPS industry is coming from. It was caught with its pants down when the FCC awarded LightSquared a conditional waiver to use its satellite spectrum for terrestrial use. The GPS industry not only had to make its case for interference, but it had to mount a massive political campaign given the priority the Obama administration has set on identifying new mobile broadband frequencies. Well, it accomplished its mission. Due to the awareness GPS device manufacturers and government agencies have raised, GPS will surely be protected. Congress is in the process of codifying that protection into law (Unfiltered: Could Congress hamstring LightSquared network build?).

The shut-it-down-at-all-costs rhetoric brought the issue to the public and lawmakers` attention, but now that reasonable assurances that GPS is safe are in place, that rhetoric is counterproductive. By shouting from the rooftops that no possible solution could ever exist, Save Our GPS is brewing a political storm that would surely forestall any LightSquared build—even if a solution actually does exist. The GPS industry needs to come back to the table and join LightSquared in searching for that solution whatever it may be.

If they can`t find it or it proves too expensive to be commercially feasible, then so be it: No LTE in the L-band. But if they don`t at least try, then they`ll set a precedent that could hinder the reallocation of any mobile broadband spectrum in the future.


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