FCC Ruling Could Affect GPS Service Nationwide

As this magazine has been reporting, LightSquared, a Reston, Virginia, wireless broadband company, is proposing to operate on spectrum frequencies close to those used by the Global Positioning System (GPS). It requested a waiver with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that will allow it to offer service on a terrestrial-only basis, bypassing a requirement that devices on its network be able to communicate with satellites.

The International Bureau of the FCC reviewed LightSquared’s request last year. The bureau develops international policies in telecommunications, such as coordination of frequency allocation and orbital assignments, so as to minimize cases of international electromagnetic interference involving U.S. licensees. (It also oversees FCC compliance with the international Radio Regulations and other international agreements.) LightSquared’s airwaves were originally set aside for satellite phone use.

In January FCC’s International Bureau agreed to allow LightSquared to offer terrestrial-only wireless service to companies that want to offer mobile broadband service. The waiver will go into effect after certain conditions set by the International Bureau are met.


Several industry groups (including ACSM whose members use the GPS as part of their work) and federal agencies (including the Defense Department) are opposing the waiver and seeking FCC review. ACSM filed an application with the FCC for review of the order, raising three points as to why LightSquared’s waiver should be overturned.

First, ACSM claimed that the International Bureau did not have authority to grant the waiver. The FCC, by its own orders, forbids non-integrated services, which is exactly what the International Bureau endorsed for LightSquared. ACSM argued that the bureau, through its order, abrogated FCC law and policy and in doing so vastly overstepped the bounds of its authority.

ACSM’s second argument was that the International Bureau violated notice and comment requirements in adopting its order. FCC rules require that any major change and/or modification to its operating conditions require notice in the Federal Register and a minimum 30-day comment period (47 C.F.R. §§ 25.151; 25.154). LightSquared’s request increased the potential for interference with the GPS; thus, it was a proposed “major change and/or modification.” The bureau mandated, however, that comments be filed 10 days after public notice and reply comments one week later.

The final point ACSM made in its application for review was that the bureau violated legal precedent and standards for processing waivers. ACSM noted that “the Bureau granted LightSquared’s application pursuant to an elaborate, far-reaching waiver that, in effect, eviscerates the proscription of the integrated service rule.” Federal law requires that an applicant who seeks a waiver of a rule (as LightSquared did) must plead with particularity the facts and circumstances that warrant such action (WAIT Radio v. FCC 418 F2d 1153, 1157, DC Cir 1969). In this case, ACSM argued, LightSquared did not plead at all for a grant of a waiver, and it provided absolutely no particularity regarding facts in support of a waiver. It simply made a request for a waiver.

ACSM is not alone in its concern about the fallout of LightSquared’s waiver. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (March 31, 2011), Defense Department and federal transportation officials expressed concern that LightSquared’s proposed mobile broadband service will interfere with global-positioning-system devices vital to military operations and aviation safety, and they are calling for a comprehensive study of LightSquared’s plans.

Back in January, the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies raised similar concerns about LightSquared’s proposal with the FCC. In response, the FCC required LightSquared to work with GPS makers and users to test the service and examine the interference issue.

Working Group to Study Issue

In its order, dated January 26, 2011, the FCC required LightSquared to submit an initial report that includes a work plan outlining key milestones for the overall analysis of potential for overload interference to GPS devices. In addressing that requirement in the order, Lightsquared has been working with the United States Global Positioning System Industry Council (USGIC) to form a working group to study the GPS overload/desensitization issue.

According to the FCC order, “The working group shall focus on analyzing a variety of types of GPS devices for their susceptibility to overload interference from LightSquared’s terrestrial network of base stations, identifying near-term technical and operational measures that can be implemented to reduce the risk of overload interference to GPS devices.”

As part of implementing the order, LightSquared and the USGIC Working Group must meet certain milestones. To reach the first milestone, the working group must:
  • establish pertinent analytical and test methodologies and assumptions underlying the test regime,
  • select the categories receivers and networks to be tested,
  • develop operational scenarios,
  • establish a methodology for analyzing test results,
  • derive the test conditions based on established operational scenarios,
  • write the test plan and procedures, and
  • identify and engage appropriate neutral test facilities for the testing portion of the work plan.
To reach the second milestone, the working group must perform testing by an objective third-party selected jointly by LightSquared and USGIC. The testing will be observed by relevant technical advisors who will not interfere or delay the testing process.

To reach the third milestone, the working group must analyze test results based on established methodology and assess operational scenarios using analytics and test results.

To reach the fourth milestone, the working group must assess whether any mitigation measures are feasible and appropriate. Any mitigation recommendations mutually acceptable by LightSquared and USGIC will be provided to the FCC in LightSquared’s final report, which is due on June 15, 2011.

Parties on both sides of the issue will be looking forward to the final report by LightSquared. In the meantime, the FCC is continuing to receive comments.

About the Author

  • Laurence Socci
    Laurence Socci
    Laurence Socci is the chief executive manager and senior lobbyist of The CLA Group, LLC, a government consulting, lobbying, and advocacy firm in Washington, D.C., specializing in representing businesses and associations. He is also the government affairs consultant for the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM).

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