EDITORIAL: Sweetheart deal endangers GPS

FCC gift could disable navigational devices

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Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski is poised to make a politically connected billionaire happy while potentially stranding millions of travelers. Venture capitalist Philip Falcone bet big money that the upstart firm LightSquared could provide faster and better wireless Internet access than well-established cellphone companies. That would be excellent, if true. There’s just one hitch: LightSquared’s technology can cause devices that use the global-positioning system (GPS) to go haywire.

On June 30, a special working group composed of representatives from LightSquared and the GPS industry filed a report documenting the effect of the proposed business plan. As the FCC itself summarized, “The tests demonstrated potentially significant interference between LightSquared operations in the upper portion of the band and various GPS receivers.” In response, LightSquared has come up with a different, untested “solution” that depends on a different slice of spectrum. The GPS industry remains concerned that LightSquared’s latest claims about the new deployment plan are just as unrealistic as the initial proposal.

Expanding wireless broadband options is important, but not so important as to risk cutting off satellite navigation. This is about more than just ensuring that families don’t take the wrong exit on their way to Disney World. Agricultural, construction and mining firms rely upon high-precision versions of GPS to perform at maximum efficiency. Various trade associations representing boaters, airlines, railroads and firefighters also have joined together in raising objections. The deputy secretaries at the Departments of Defense and Transportation fired off a joint letter in March complaining that they were excluded from the approval process despite the importance of GPS to national security and transportation safety.

The FCC is supposed to serve as a traffic cop to ensure that the needs of various spectrum users don’t conflict. In this case, Mr. Genachowski appears to be ramming a dangerous scheme through administrative channels at lightning speed. On Tuesday, the company announced it had raised $265 million in additional funding for its plan, suggesting investors believe this deal will go through.

At least two House-passed appropriations bills include language limiting the FCC’s ability to approve a deal that impedes GPS. A public comment period on LightSquared’s latest plan will remain open until the end of the month. The agency ought to say no. The issue reflects a failure on the part of the FCC to allocate the airwaves in a way that doesn’t set one industry against another to the detriment of all concerned.

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