In the past decade, millions have come to depend on the seeming magic of the global positioning system (GPS) to guide them to their destination. The navigational gadgets in cars, cell phones and other hand-held devices can even be a lifesaver. Now the system may be undermined by a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision last month to allow a well-connected company to exploit a slice of the airwaves in a way that potentially blocks GPS signals.
The FCC bent the rules so the Reston-based firm LightSquared could offer a new wireless Internet service that fulfills President Obama’s high-profile push for public investment in broadband. Yet the FCC appears to have done its best to keep this particular deal far from the public eye. LightSquared made its formal request for a waiver on Nov. 18, and the agency opened a public-comment period the next day. Those with an interest in the matter had just two weeks to comment - a short period that included Thanksgiving.
The haste may be related to surprising laboratory test results from the world’s top manufacturer of navigational gizmos, Garmin Ltd. The company’s engineers found that popular consumer GPS units started experiencing dropouts when approaching within 3.6 miles of a LightSquared transmitter. A commonly used aircraft navigation unit completely lost its fix within 5.6 miles. “It’s mind-boggling to us,” Garmin spokesman Ted Gartner told The Washington Times. “If it’s implemented as is, we’ve presented a pretty good case with that test that there will be some disruptions.”
The concern is shared by the Department of Defense, which launched the first Navstar GPS satellite in 1978 as a tool to improve the effectiveness of the military’s aircraft, ships and missiles in reaching their targets. On Dec. 28, the military asked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to ask the FCC to slow down. “DoD is concerned with the [order and authorization] being conducted without the proper analysis required to make a well informed decision,” the department’s spectrum policy director wrote in a Dec. 28 letter. The Pentagon wanted the FCC to “defer action” until interference issues were fully addressed.
The FCC ignored the request. According to insiders, the deal was brokered through the office of Chairman Julius Genachowski, who cut the other commissioners out of the process. The fast-paced decision-making was just what venture capitalist Philip Falcone needed to give his reported $3 billion investment in LightSquared a boost in its competition with established players including AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. LightSquared wisely harnessed a former FCC bureau chief to navigate the bureaucratic back channels, and Mr. Falcone’s $38,900 in campaign checks to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee since 2008 - and $2,300 to the House campaign of then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat - certainly didn’t hurt in bringing the firm’s needs to the Obama administration’s attention.
As it stands, the FCC gave LightSquared until June 15 to issue a report on the GPS problem, which, if approved, would allow the company to begin operations. Given the widespread effects that interruption of GPS service would have on the nation’s commerce, this process needs to slow down and be made more transparent. Otherwise, it might be time to stock up on paper maps.