Point of Beginning

LightSquared versus GPS

August 17, 2011

There has been a wide range of comments and opinions on the GPS interference issue related to the proposed LightSquared wireless network. Comments from GPS users, wireless supporters, aviation advocates, and even casinos have been flowing to the Federal Communication Commission in recent months with their support of or opposition to the LightSquared network. The numerous disciplines to which these authors adhere result in an interesting collection of perspectives and attitudes toward these proceedings. The belligerency of some letters and the slanderous accusations between proponents of the differing opinions demonstrate that the issue will be resolved by the effectiveness of commercial propaganda rather than the application process relating to spectrum allocation.

LightSquared has spread the rumor that high-precision GPS users are squatters on the electromagnetic spectrum and are unwilling to share with anyone else. LightSquared also explicitly states that existing high-precision GPS equipment is defective by design and that LightSquared should not be denied because of inferior GPS equipment that is incapable of filtering out signal interference from the LightSquared network. Their campaign includes several fantastic-sounding solutions and minimization-of-impact remedies. The most widely circulated claim is that only a fraction (0.5%) of all GPS receivers are affected by the LightSquared signal. This is an ironic claim because the very 0.5% to which they refer affects 100% of the United States’ population. LightSquared does not deny the existence of the disabling interference between their signal and GPS; however, they downplay the significance of the disruption by their repeated attempts at discrediting the GPS community. These tactics have been effective against the overwhelming evidence to the contrary presented by GPS industry supporters. The continuing debate in light of overwhelming evidence indicates that the facts are irrelevant to the matter at hand (GPS being disabled by LightSquared interference), and that the decision will be a negotiated one between the FCC and the LightSquared supporters. The decisions made so far in the application process are indicative of a desired outcome, which supports the more popular LightSquared business plan.

The LightSquared campaign is well orchestrated and is constantly adapting to the needs of its interested parties. This is not surprising as the company has invested billions of dollars in advance of the permit; taking great risk with its investments and reputation. Few members in the GPS community have taken the effort to investigate the business plan of LightSquared and its potential for advancing wireless information distribution. The popularity of high-speed wireless service is something that American taxpayers, registered voters, and stockholders can physically hold in their hands and experience with the latest electronic gadget. These devices, ironically, have global positioning applications to assist the user find a restaurant, nightclub, or any number of popular destinations. From the typical wireless customer’s perspective, this is the extent of their GPS use.

The indirect use of GPS is ubiquitous, yet unseen to the typical wireless consumer. The components within their mobile devices were mined using high-precision GPS-guided machines, shipped using navigational GPS, and tracked with GPS-enabled programs. Many foods originate at farms that use precision GPS to plow, plant, fertilize, and harvest with greater efficiency and less waste. Road are constructed using earth-moving equipment guided by precision GPS, and jumbo jets are guided by GPS in order to get passengers safely home for the holidays. Few people think of GPS even when they see an airliner taking to the sky or glimpse a satellite as a moving star in the night sky, but GPS is everywhere – always operating for the benefit of the country’s infrastructure. 

Although it is not expected for a typical startup company to understand GPS in meticulous detail, this is not the case for a space-based wireless service provider with its own satellite constellation. With this major oversight undermining LightSquared’s FCC permit, the only viable solution remaining for LightSquared is to discredit the entire GPS community in both reputation and relevance. These attempts have included the classic methods such as data manipulation, false accusations, and inferring that the GPS industry is the cause of the interference. Although perceived as unethical and unprofessional by the GPS community, it is perfectly legal and highly effective. LightSquared has used the ultra-scientific nature of GPS to its advantage by classifying the high-precision GPS users as fringe groups of outcasts who are sabotaging the future with their rotary-phone-era technology. This stereotype is amusing even to professional GPS users in the context of a cartoon; however, it is dangerous when actually perceived as such by individuals in positions of authority. LightSquared’s most impressive skill is their ability to convince the decision-making members of various bodies into believing that the facts of the interference issue are not only irrelevant, but also non-existent. Some GPS supporters have even sarcastically accused these groups of repealing the laws of physics by a majority vote.

The GPS community states that since the laws of physics prevent the LightSquared network from operating without disabling GPS, the LightSquared FCC permit application must be rejected. This is an undisputed fact and is a sound argument in the physical world; however, the pertinent laws of physics simply do not apply to the imaginative world of politics. The oversimplified comparison is one of an illusionist’s performance. If the magician can make the illusion appear convincing to the audience, the laws of physics are ignored and the next show is sold out – even though nobody believes the magician’s assistant was bisected by a saw and miraculously healed. Wireless customers will more likely believe an entertaining impossibility that they can hold in their hand, instead of the ethereal reality of GPS physics.

Supporters of GPS are now entrenched in their position – awaiting the final imminent assault from LightSquared. The GPS community is confident that they will be victorious in their struggle having the laws of physics on their side; however, the reality of the situation must not be underestimated. GPS is facing an adversary who is billions of times more powerful and who is supported by the most powerful element of physics – time. The LightSquared supporters have more advanced weapons to hurl at GPS as well as a dangerously effective commercial propaganda program. Since the GPS signal cannot retreat to another part of the spectrum, the only options remaining are either for LightSquared to abandon its assault on GPS, or for the GPS community to stand and fight wave-after-wave of wireless network applications. Unfortunately, being 100% correct will not be enough to repel this invasion. No matter how overwhelming the facts related to the issue are, they will have little impact on the outcome of this conflict. The FCC will choose the victor by popularity or by agreements between outside parties.

The FCC approval process is not a trial by jury. It is not subject to the same standards of evidence for even a civil case, nor is there a burden of proof to overcome. The facts are not weighed on an equal scale and the conclusions reached are not required to address the facts. The decision that is reached is one which is in the best interest of the FCC regardless of any overwhelming evidence presented during the process. The outcome of this process will be decided by the party with the more effective powers of persuasion, not by the strengths of the facts presented.