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No One Uses GPS, Do They?

There are some technologies that you just don't monkey with. Running water, for example. The nation's food supply. And the global positioning system (GPS) that is the space-based, hyper-accurate enabler to about a zillion different location applications found in many aspects of modern civilized life. But courtesy of newcomer 4G wannabe LightSquared, a somewhat exotic mobile network technology threatens to lay functional waste to millions of consumer, commercial and military GPS-enabled devices. This is one weird tale that just can’t get too much press.

In a story line that loosely parallels the recent broadband over powerline (BPL) debacle, the LightSquared story also shows the ugly sausage that can be created when politicians try to advance technologies they don’t understand. In the BPL case, then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell played head cheerleader for the controversial powerline-based network technology that has since largely fizzled out due to its own shortcomings. With LightSquared, at least the FCC is showing some restraint of late, but only after getting a shellacking for fast-tracking conditional approval for the potential GPS-killer earlier in the year and deeming it a "promising technology" despite a growing number of technically minded groups lining up against it. (A reminder that the FCC is made up of political appointees is in order right about now.)

For those not following the story, LightSquared wants to do 4G mobile networking in a new way, using frequencies that have been so far left alone for the revered GPS satellite constellation to do its magic. The GPS system uses signals from space, measured in values as small as microvolts on the ground, for both consumer and precision commercial and military devices. From some 4,000 land-based towers, LightSquared would operate in the same frequencies, but at power levels that have been described as being potentially millions of times stronger than GPS signals. This is why a lot of commercial spectators to the process are very, very worried.

It’s probably little wonder that this whole mess is painted with a thick coat of politics. The primary investor in LightSquared donated heavily to the Democratic Party. President Obama wants growth in the national broadband area and has indicated his willingness to encourage new technologies. The Republican party has cried foul over the democratic-slanted FCC hustling through the conditional approval that has allowed the company to come this far along. And wouldn’t you know it? Every side in the debate has a technical expert ready to testify about how great and how terrible LightSquared’s technology is. Ugh.

Speaking of politics and testimony, General William Shelton is commander, Air Force Space Command, and in my book a courageous fellow. Despite risk to his career (politics, remember?), Shelton recently testified before a Congressional Armed Services committee on the military’s reliance on the GPS system, and pulled no punches that LightSquared’s proposed system would lay waste to pretty much all GPS-based military receivers based on systematic testing done by and for the military.

LightSquared counters that millions of GPS devices made to date, and even the GPS satellites themselves, are not designed as they should be, and imply that perhaps this really isn’t the company’s problem. There have been press releases about the now infamous "10 cent filter" that LightSquared claims can be retrofitted into most commercial and military devices to mitigate interference from LightSquared’s signals. (Sorry, consumers, your existing GPS stuff pretty much gets and stays unusable.) To date, the filter has yet to be produced for the many parties that are asking to see and evaluate it.

I will admit a bias of sorts against what LightSquared is trying to do. We all have our own frames of reference, and mine on this topic is formed from a technology-based military career, being an avid user of consumer GPS products, and believing that good ideas shouldn’t need federal-level political cheerleaders to make them viable. At the same time, I live in the real world, and understand that huge dollars are tangled up in both sides of this story. I don’t yet know how it will turn out, but for now it is making for some exciting techno-drama.