LightSquared is making a name for itself by building the first broadband network based on satellites. But it’s not the company’s signature satellite that’s drawing criticism -- it’s LightSquared’s plan to build traditional, land-based transmitters.
Because LightSquared’s network will operate on frequencies very close to those used for global positioning system signals, the Federal Communications Commission is making the company test its technology to see whether it causes interference. This week, the Federal Aviation Administration warned pilots flying near Las Vegas not to rely on GPS while LightSquared conducts tests in the area.
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The potential for interference makes for strong opposition from the GPS industry. But Jim Kirkland, vice president of GPS manufacturer Trimble, said LightSquared’s massive satellite is largely compatible with current GPS systems.
The problem, Kirkland said, is LightSquared’s land-based transmitters, which will be billions of times more powerful than GPS signals, effectively blinding the devices.
“For all the talk of technical fixes, the laws of physics come into play here, and I don’t think the FCC can waive the laws of physics,” Kirkland said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday. He said LightSquared is switching its business model from one based on satellite signals to one based on terrestrial transmitters.
LightSquared Executive Vice President Jeff Carlisle confirmed that the controversy revolves around the land-based network, not the satellite, but he said LightSquared is pursuing the same plan approved by the FCC in 2005.
As far back as 2008, LightSquared had specifically said it plans to build around 40,000 ground transmitters, which is standard for a nationwide network, Carlisle said. He questioned why the GPS industry only recently raised concerns.
Kirkland contends that in relying on ground transmitters, LightSquared no longer has any incentive to avoid interference with satellite signals.
“The main protection for GPS was that originally LightSquared would have to worry about interference with its satellite as much as we do,” Kirkland said after the event. “So long as it was required to rely on its satellite, it had overwhelming incentive to not interfere with itself.”
LightSquared’s satellite is undergoing final testing in orbit, but the company is watching the FCC before fully rolling out its ground-based network, Carlisle said. LightSquared is scheduled to provide initial interference test results and assessments to the FCC on June 15.