FCC Officials Say LightSquared-GPS Interference Raised ‘Very Late'

Keep up with the latest developments and legal issues in the telecommunications and emerging technology sectors, with exclusive access to a comprehensive collection of telecommunications law news,...

The Federal Communications Commission gave conditional approval to LightSquared Inc. to build a nationwide mobile broadband network in January 2011 without knowing the network's signals would interfere with global positioning systems, two agency officials told lawmakers Sept. 21.

Julius Knapp, chief of the agency's Office of Engineering and Technology, and Mindel De La Torre, chief of the FCC's International Bureau, in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said GPS interests simply failed to notify the FCC sooner.

“Manufacturers and service providers have the relevant information, and they also have the incentive to notify the commission of the potential for receiver overload so as to avoid problems with their services and products,” Knapp said in his prepared testimony. “The commission routinely hears from parties that are concerned that new services will cause interference. In this instance--unlike any other that I can recall in my decades at the FCC--the GPS industry did not do so until very late in the proceeding. Once the commission received that information, it acted quickly to prevent any public safety problems.”

Knapp said the FCC would have conducted an investigation of any concerns of interference “as soon as they were raised.”

Complex, Sensitive Matter.

The matter of whether LightSquared and GPS device users can, and should, coexist has been the most technically complex and politically challenging one that the FCC has had to deal with during Chairman Julius Genachowski's tenure.

The agency has faced sharp criticism on Capitol Hill for not only granting LightSquared a conditional waiver to construct a network that had the potential of interfering with GPS devices, including those used by the military, but for allegedly showing favoritism toward company executives who donated to the Democratic party.

Under pressure, the FCC on Feb. 14 moved to revoke LightSquared's conditional waiver, hours after the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration sent a letter to the agency saying there is “no practical way” to prevent LightSquared's network signals from interfering with critical global positioning systems devices.

Stearns Faults GPS Industry.

But at the House subcommittee hearing, the two FCC officials heard accusations of a different sort: that the commission did not do more to enable LightSquared's project to go forward.

“We must not permit regulatory uncertainty at the FCC to deter companies from investments that will bring more competition to the industry and more innovation for consumers,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee, noting that LightSquared has invested $4 billion and occupies 40 MHz of spectrum which now “lies fallow.”

In questioning De La Torre, Stearns suggested that the real problem stems not so much from LightSquared's network signal but from GPS receivers. According to LightSquared, GPS operators have not properly adhered to what is known as the Global Positioning System Standard Positioning Service Performance Standard, issued by the Department of Defense in September 2008, which calls for GPS receivers to filter out transmissions from adjacent bands to achieve optimal performance for the GPS system.

Stearns pointedly asked whether GPS manufacturers have an obligation to design receivers that filter out signals in adjacent bands.

De La Torre said that they do, and also confirmed that in an Aug. 4, 2011 email about LightSquared, she wrote that the “GPS has been driving in the left lane with impunity, but now that it looks like the left lane might actually have traffic in it, the GPS community is yelling bloody murder.”

Knapp added that the issue has given greater focus to receivers and “staying in your lane.” Since the FCC revoked the conditional waiver in February, the agency has held several workshops on receiver standards, he said.

Decision Not Imminent.

When asked by Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) when the FCC planned to render a final decision on LightSquared, Knapp said the agency does not have a “specific target.”

“It's a complex issue. LightSquared has put some new ideas on the table and we think everything is worth considering at this point,” Knapp said.

Knapp declined to provide specifics.

“It's not only this immediate issue, but we also think long term about impact for the use of this spectrum because of the spectrum crunch and importance of getting every ounce of benefit out of all the spectrum that we possibly can,” Knapp said.

In a statement issued after the hearing, Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of Trimble, a founding member of the GPS industry's Coalition to Save Our GPS, characterized the FCC's testimony as “deeply misguided and wrong.”

“The FCC repeatedly committed to these government users that it would proactively protect GPS, including explicit statements to that effect in 2003 and 2005, and government users and industry relied on these commitments,” Kirkland said in an emailed statement. “Now, the FCC staff apparently believes that it was only obligated to consider GPS interference issues if GPS manufacturers raised them--which would be an astonishing abandonment of the FCC's public interest responsibilities.”

By Paul Barbagallo  

For more information on the hearing, including written testimony, visit http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearing/lightsquared-network-investigation-fccs-role.

Request Tech & Telecom on Bloomberg Law