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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Panel: GPS Is Vital, But Vulnerable

Aviation concerns went before a House subcommittee on Wednesday touting the importance of the GPS network to the industry, but urged lawmakers to defend the integrity of the GPS network from potential interferences and/or jamming.

The House Subcommittee on Aviation called the hearing to assess the importance of the GPS signal, particularly with respect to the proposed LightSquared broadband network and its potential to interference with GPS. Additionally, FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation (NextGen) initiative relies heavily on GPS.

“Given the essential role of GPS, the federal government must develop comprehensive safeguards for aviation’s use of it,” said Tom Hendricks, senior vice president, safety, security and operations at Airlines for America. “The stakes are too high for the passengers and shippers that rely on air transportation.” Specifically, Hendricks said LightSquared’s proposal needs to be defeated as it would create “ruinous effects on aviation.”
Aviation groups and others have lobbied strongly against the LightSquared proposal. FCC last year preliminarily approved the plan, but will issue its final rule this year following a comment period, which ends this month.

At the hearing, Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari said FAA tests show LightSquared’s proposed terrestrial network is “not compatible” with numerous GPS-enabled aviation safety operations and “there appears to be no practical solutions or mitigations that would permit LightSquared broadband service, as proposed, to operate in the next few months or years without significantly interfering with GPS.”

The questions of GPS interference of LightSquared brings up larger questions about the vulnerability and integrity of the GPS signal in general, panelists said. The system is open for use by the international public and military, and at the same time, there is no reliable backup to GPS in case of failure, intentional or otherwise.

“While recognizing that the FAA is studying the possible alternate options for position, navigation and timing, with no formal backup in place at present, GPS users are vulnerable in the event of a system shutdown or interference,” said Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). “The designation of an official backup would allow equipment manufacturers to begin creating products that incorporate whatever technology might be needed to asses that backup.”

John M. Foley, director of GNSS technology at Garmin, said LightSquared investigation that has unfolded over the last 12 months has provided a “trial run” to determine the GPS network’s weaknesses. “Garmin encourages government decision makers to take the lessons of this ‘trial run’ to heart, so that we put in place enforcement and coordination mechanisms to ensure that the unthinkable does not occur in the future.”

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