Got a call from a farm equipment manufacturer last week who wanted to fill me in on the latest goings on with LightSquared, the firm that wants to bring broadband to rural areas but at the same time could be setting up a system that could blot out precision GPS systems - for farms, aviation, defense and others.
LightSquared is planning on building a 40,000-tower 4G LTE system that would bring broadband to a much wider area. Their plan is to become a service any provider could use as a high-speed backbone. The challenge is that the frequency on which the signals would be transmitted appear to cause significant interference.
The company claims it has come up with a solution for most GPS systems, but is still working on its precision GPS solution. Last week LightSquared issued a release noting that in recent weeks several companies have stepped up with new tech that will make GPS receivers compatible with the LightSquared system. Last June the company issued an announcement that cost it $100 million and solved the problem for what it says is 99.75% of all GPS devices. And the company claims that the 400 million cell phones and auto systems currently using GPS are already compatible with the LightSquared network.
In addition, LightSquared says it has invested $9 million to develop filters that ensured its signal didn't cross into the spectrum licensed to GPS, which means "any interference that remains is caused by GPS signals looking into our spectrum," the release says. And the company has committed $50 million to retrofit or replace high-precision GPS devices in use by federal agencies.
Keep in mind, any solution LightSquared comes up with must still be thoroughly tested by key players including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Defense.
The Coalition to Save our GPS, which includes a wide range of GPS manufacturers and companies that use the technology including Ag Leader, Agco, the Air Line Pilots Association, Case IH, New Holland, Caterpillar, Deere & Company, Delta Air Lines, Leica Geosystems, Magellen GPS, Southwest Airlines, and TomTom among others has responded to LightSquared's latest claims saying the company "has yet again oversimplified and greatly overstate the significance of the claims of vendors to have 'solved' the interference issue." The coalition notes that past claims have not proven out in rigorous tests and the demanding tests of "marketplace acceptance."
The release also notes that LightSquared has missed the fact that any new equipment solution, even if proven, "will not solve interference to hundreds of thousands of existing precision devices in the hands of farmers, small businesses and others. If and when actual solutions are available, LightSquared must accept responsibility for paying to replace the existing base of existing equipment with new product."
And there you have it. That Save Our GPS group wants two key things:
1 - a filtering system that has been thoroughly tested before that tower network goes online.
2 - if a filtering solution is found and there is a need to retrofit precision GPS equipment, that LightSquared pick up the tab.
It's point #2 that will be the sticking point in this debate. While LightSquared is offering money to retrofit/upgrade government systems (a number by the way that is far below what the billions the Department of Defense said it would cost to retrofit if a solution were found) that still leaves farmers, airlines and others with systems that could be disrupted.
In another point, which I quoted above from LightSquared about GPS systems "looking into our spectrum" the Save our GPS group notes that this is highly misleading. "In fact, the reason high-precision receivers suffer interference that LightSquared can't solve is that they were designed to take advantage of commercial satellite services LightSquared, its predecessors and Inmarsat have offered that are used to improve the precision of those receivers," according to its response.
First step is to make sure that no solution is pushed into the market before it is thoroughly tested and FCC and NTIA will make sure that happens. Second step is to figure out the who pays challenge? I don't like to say this, but if a solution is implemented in the market and that tower network gets switched on before the payment scenario is worked out there's only one place for this to go: the courts.