- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A new, ultrafast wireless Internet network is raising concerns that it will overpower GPS signals across the U.S. and interfere with everything from airplanes to police cars to consumer navigation devices.

The problem stems from a recent government decision to let a Virginia company called LightSquared build a nationwide broadband network using airwaves next to those used for the wildly popular global positioning systems. Manufacturers of GPS equipment fear that strong signals from the planned network could jam existing navigation systems.

A technical fix could be expensive — billions of dollars by one estimate — and there’s no agreement on who should pay. Government officials pledge to block LightSquared from turning on its network as scheduled this year unless they receive assurances that GPS systems will still work.

The stakes are high not only for the GPS industry and its users, but also for those who would use LightSquared’s network. In approving it, the Federal Communications Commission seeks to boost wireless competition and bring faster and cheaper Internet connections to all Americans — even in remote parts of the country.

LightSquared and the FCC both insist the new network can co-exist with GPS systems. But device-makers fear GPS signals will be hampered the way a radio station can be drowned out by a stronger broadcast on a nearby channel.

The problem, they say, is that sensitive satellite receivers — designed to pick up relatively weak signals coming from space — could be overwhelmed when LightSquared starts sending high-power signals from as many as 40,000 transmitters on the ground using the airwaves next door.

“The potential impact of GPS interference is so vast, it’s hard to get your head around,” said Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of Trimble Navigation Ltd., which makes GPS systems. “Think 40,000 GPS dead spots covering millions of square miles in cities and towns throughout the U.S.”

One of the biggest risks is to the GPS navigation systems used by about 40 percent of commercial and private planes. Backup systems that rely on ground-based radio signals are not as accurate and have coverage gaps. Some older private planes have no backup at all.

With GPS interference, a pilot “may go off course and not even realize it,” said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Even the Pentagon has expressed concern as it relies on GPS to guide planes, ships, armored vehicles, weapons and troops.

LightSquared plans to compete nationally with “fourth-generation” wireless services being rolled out by the likes of AT&T; and Verizon Wireless. It won’t sell directly to consumers, though. Instead, LightSquared will provide network access to companies including Leap Wireless, parent of the Cricket phone service, and Best Buy.

Both LightSquared and the FCC say further testing is needed to determine the true extent of any interference.

LightSquared won’t be allowed to turn on its network until the government is satisfied that any problems are addressed, FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said.

“We have every reason to resolve these concerns because we want to make sure there is a robust GPS system,” LightSquared executive vice president Jeffrey Carlisle said.

Dan Hays, a consultant with the firm PRTM, projected it would cost no more than $12 million — or 30 cents per device — to install better filters in roughly 40 million GPS units made worldwide each year. Cell phones, he said, will be fine because they don’t rely solely on GPS to determine location and have better filters anyway.

But Tim Farrar, a consultant with TMF Associates, insists cellphones need upgrades, too — raising the annual cost to as much as $1 billion. And tens of billions of dollars of existing equipment may also need to be replaced, Mr. Farrar said.

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