GPS manufacturers, however, contend that the FCC’s action changed the game, allowing LightSquared to operate a new kind of network, thereby increasing the value of the company’s spectrum. Unlike land-only carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, LightSquared could send transmissions between towers by satellite, and this network would be cheaper to use and provide better service than satellite phones. Soon, critics in the GPS industry and on Capitol Hill were accusing the FCC of giving the fledgling company special treatment. Life in Washington for LightSquared was about to get a lot more complicated.
A TECHNOLOGICAL SNAG
The fight centers on the use of the radio spectrum, which the federal government regulates. Considered a national resource, the finite amount of usable spectrum has long been divided and set aside for various purposes, from cell phones to television and radio to GPS. Those uses have been traditionally separated to avoid interference. But as more and more devices come to rely on wireless technology, spectrum users don’t have the luxury of buffer zones and are being forced to squeeze ever closer, prompting government officials to urge companies to make their systems more tolerant of interference.
The portion of spectrum that LightSquared has was designated for use by satellites, but the company’s plan to use it for a land-based network has brought it into conflict with GPS. LightSquared told regulators that its planned network, consisting of a single satellite and thousands of land-based transmitters, would be perfectly compatible with the GPS satellites and their transmissions. The problem is that, for years, GPS manufacturers have been building devices based on the assumption that nothing would interfere with their signals. GPS-enabled devices, whether a cell phone or an instrument in a million-dollar airplane, “look” into a wide range of spectrum and therefore receive transmissions made on LightSquared’s bandwidth; the devices can’t help but receive the powerful transmissions—even though they don’t cross into GPS’s designated portion of the spectrum.
LightSquared officials promised that before going ahead with their plans, they would wait until all parties concerned—federal agencies, GPS manufacturers, and LightSquared itself—conducted tests to determine whether the company’s network would, in fact, interfere with GPS transmissions.
Competing industries, however, were already pushing back. Last March, an anti-LightSquared lobbying alliance called the Coalition to Save Our GPS sprang up seemingly overnight. GPS manufacturers such as Garmin and TomTom joined with the National Association of Manufacturers and other companies that boast decades of Washington experience—John Deere, for example, which makes tractors that use GPS devices of great precision. The group took its case against LightSquared to Congress and the FCC.
Soon enough, LightSquared’s opponents had a reason to exult. The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, an industry-government group that advises the FAA, reported in June that its tests showed that LightSquared’s transmissions caused a “complete loss of GPS receiver function.” The report’s publicly released summary found the company’s land-based network would be “incompatible with the current aviation use of GPS,” unless technological modifications were made. The transmissions from tower to device are much more powerful than GPS signals and overpower the GPS receivers.
Despite this bad news, analysts say, LightSquared still has regulatory precedent on its side in arguing that the responsibility for fixing this problem belongs to the manufacturers of wireless receivers. Traditionally, companies that make GPS devices, cell phones, tablet computers, and other wireless receivers have been responsible for making sure that their products don’t wander into neighboring spectrums. Precedent may not hold, however, in the face of opposition from GPS manufacturers and the powerful agencies and industries that rely on GPS.
Which side, then, should bear the responsibility for any required modifications? The GPS industry argues that there is no known fix for many types of GPS receivers and that putting wireless-transmission filters on smartphones may not work. Besides, “the commission and LightSquared cannot now rewrite the rules to shift the burden of eliminating interference to GPS providers,” Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel for GPS manufacturer Trimble, wrote in a May letter to Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who is influential on telecom issues. “That burden remains squarely with LightSquared. If LightSquared cannot demonstrate that it will not cause—or that it alone will ameliorate—harmful interference to GPS operations, it must not be permitted to initiate service.”
THE POLITICAL TRENCHES
Thus, a debate over technology and business has become a political football. It’s hardly unprecedented, of course. Washington has long been known for making life difficult for businesses with waves of regulations and subpoenas. Most high-tech start-ups—Google, for instance—didn’t need regulators’ say-so to begin operations, so they never faced the klieg lights of congressional hearings and federal probes until they were well off the ground.