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Thursday, February 16, 2012

FCC Shuts Down LightSquared Plan Over GPS Concerns

Timothy Sprinkle

The aviation industry has reason to celebrate this week, following a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) statement on Tuesday that it intends to revoke its initial waiver for LightSquared's proposed national broadband network.

The move came after a study conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and released this week found that there is no reliable way to offset potential GPS interference from the company’s wireless broadband network. The FCC had previously said that harmful interference to the nation’s GPS systems, “would not be permitted.”

In short, this could be the end of the line for LightSquared's embattled proposal.

“NTIA, the federal agency that coordinates spectrum uses for the military and other federal government entities, has now concluded that there is no practical way to mitigate potential interference at this time," FCC spokesperson Tammy Sun said. "Consequently, the commission will not lift the prohibition on LightSquared."

The FCC is proposing to vacate the Conditional Waiver Order it had approved for LightSquared in January 2011 and suspend the company's Ancillary Terrestrial Component authority "indefinitely." A public comment period on the planned actions opened Wednesday.

The move came as something of a surprise, as the FCC had been accepting public comments on the company’s original proposal and wasn't expected to rule on the LightSquared plan until March at the earliest.

Based on independent tests, NTIA determined LightSquared’s network interfered with “many” different GPS units, including several safety-of-flight systems used on business and commercial aircraft. LightSquared had proposed a hardware fix for existing receivers that would avoid this type of interference, but those suggestions were dismissed by both NTIA and the GPS industry, saying it would be all but impossible to update the tens of millions of receivers currently in use.

LightSquared said it is disappointed with the decision. “Typically, when America has faced a challenge, the private and public sectors join together to help solve these problems to better serve this country,” said Sanjiv Ahuja, chairman and CEO of LightSquared, saying the company has invested nearly $4 billion in the project. “Unfortunately, with its action yesterday, the FCC has harmed not only LightSquared, but also the American public by making it impossible to build out a system that would meet public policy goals of successive administrations.”

Aviation industry representatives, on the other hand, were united in their support for the FCC move.

"We thank the FCC for taking this very important step," said Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). "More than 60 percent of business aircraft operating in the U.S. are equipped with various GPS capabilities required for instrument approaches at over 5,000 airports, and even more have en-route GPS capability. NBAA members don't oppose new technology systems like the one proposed by LightSquared, as long as they don't compromise aviation safety by interfering with the GPS systems our members rely on for navigation and communications.”

Craig Fuller, president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association agreed, calling the FCC’s decision one that recognizes the growing importance of GPS to aviation. “Ongoing work to modernize our air traffic infrastructure will only increase our reliance on GPS, so keeping the system accessible and free from interference is critical to ensuring that we continue to have the safest aviation system in the world.”

Last week, aviation concerns went before a House subcommittee 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. 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.” More

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