The National Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing Committee, in a letter released this afternoon, said it had reached the “unanimous conclusion” that the LightSquared network would “cause harmful interference to many GPS receivers” as well as a GPS-powered ground-alert system overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Based upon this testing an analysis, there appear to be no practical solutions or mitigations that would permit the LightSquared broadband service, as proposed, to operate in the next few months or years without significantly interfering with GPS. As a result, no additional testing is warranted at this time.”
The Space-Based Positioning Navigation & Timing executive committee has representatives from nine federal departments including the Commerce Dept, and the Air Force, and the letter was signed by Ashton Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and John Porcari, Deputy Secretary of Transportation. The group reports its conclusions to the Federal Communications Commission, which has the final say on whether Lightsquared can proceed with its network, into which New York hedge fund operator Phil Falcone has poured more than $2 billion.
LightSquared, in a news release, said the test results reflect “bias and inappropriate collusion” because the PNT committee included non-government employees with ties to the GPS industry. The company earlier this week filed a complaint with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Investigator General’s office over the involvement of Dr. Brad Parkinson, a director of GPS equipment manufacturer Trimble Navigation, on the PNT Advisory Board.
The group’s findings don’t doom LightSquared but increase the pressure on FCC officials to scale back the broad license the company was granted back in 2005 to build a combined ground/satellite communications network with an unlimited number of terrestrial transmitter towers. LightSquared argues the claim of “interference” is technically incorrect, since the problem lies with GPS receivers that were designed to take in radio signals from adjacent frequencies. The GPS industry, if required to upgrade those receivers with filters, could possibly face millions of dollars in liability. LightSquared maintains relatively inexpensive filters can be manufactured to eliminate the interference problem.
The filters in question have been proven in third-party tests to correct the faulty designs of high-precision GPS equipment and eliminate issues related to interference. Government tests are essential to proving the effectiveness of these filters, but could also mean the manufacturers of these devices will be required to replace millions of dollars in faulty equipment.
Interestingly, the testing found no interference with the GPS units in cellular phones, which contain filters to protect them against the transmitters in the phones themselves. Opponents of the LightSquared system say cellphone GPS units are less accurate than standalone GPS receivers and it is technically and economically impractical to equip GPS receivers with those filters.
The finding by the PNT committee strikes a severe blow against Falcone who has poured billions of dollars of his own and investors’ money into LightSquared. He suspended redemptions from his Harbinger Capital after investors, who made $10 billion off of his successful bet against subprime securities, sought to pull their money from the fund that has since shrunk to $5 billion. He also faces unrelated Securities and Exchange Commission allegations of insider trading that could result in his suspension from the securities industry.
Regardless of how Falcone fares, his spectrum will likely remain valuable. In the letter, the PNT committee said it continues to “strongly support” President Obama’s push for an additonal 500 megaherz of spectrum for broadband wireless use as cellular phones and other devices display an exponentially rising hunger for wireless bandwidth.