Out in Front: C’mon, People Now

October 1, 2011  - By

In this hour of crisis, in this hour of need, I would recall for you the immortal words of the Brotherhood of Man, as reprised here by their disciples, Sonny and Cher:

For united we stand,
Divided we fall,
And if our backs should
ever be against the wall,
We’ll be together,
Together, you and I.

Or will we?

The LightSquared crisis has been and continues to be the most perplexing and fascinating episode I have followed in 11 years of covering the GNSS community. Fascinating because it has so many political and societal implications, as well as tangled-up technical, application, and business issues. In the end, it’s all about money. Money and power.

It further fascinates me from a sociological point of view. The way the unfolding of this process has affected the GNSS community, in particular the subset of that community that is the GPS industry in the United States, strikes many reverberating chords.

At first glance, we can say that the crisis has pulled a diverse community together, united it against a common foe. Witness the work of the Coalition, the agreement among the TWG sub-groups, the NPEF, the chorus of supporting letters and comments in the FCC docket, and so on. This is true — but only to an extent.

I believe the opposite is also true: it has exposed cracks or fissures within the community, driven wedges into those cracks, and widened the cracks into gaps. It has exploited natural divisions that exist because GNSS technology is so widespread in applications and variegated in types of users. The process threatens to fracture the industry, and the community, further. That’s alarming.

In the early going, response was fairly uniform: how can LightSquared and the FCC do this? How can we stop them? Thus the Coalition to Save Our GPS was formed. The Coalition has functioned very ably, but in fact it represents only one segment of the community: the high-precision segment. It is staffed and directed, to my knowledge, largely by Trimble and John Deere with some help and assistance from the off-shore and aviation segments. There is participation and membership from other areas, but generally, high precision drives it.

This is also largely true of the GPS Industry Council. I am making broad generalizations that are surely inaccurate, to a degree. The GPS Industry Council earlier served the community in the pre-LightSquared negotiations of 2002 and continues to do so today alongside the Coalition It is similarly oriented towards the interests of its principal members.

The high-precision bias, if you will, of the scenario became apparent to me when I tried to recruit webinar speakers and contributed editorial pieces from the other end of the GPS community: consumer and handheld receiver and cell-phone chip manufacturers. These companies, among whom I number Qualcomm (which long ago snapped up SnapTrack), Broadcom (acquired Global Locate a few years ago), and CSR (now owns the company formerly known as SiRF), declined to participate, speak out, or become involved in any public way. They seemed content to stand on the sidelines, watching. A newly appointed Qualcomm board member of the PNT Excomm Advisory Committee recused himself from participation in LightSquared-related activities.

Why? Money. These companies are much closer to, in many cases are business partners with, the wireless carriers and the cell-phone manufacturers who have stock in seeing 4G happen and broadband roll out across the land. The L1 GPS companies feel they have to be fairly careful about how they proceed.

As one person from such a company told me, “I think we tend to have a positive view, which is contrary to everyone else. This was a political issue, not a technical one, and the political wheels were in motion for a long time. Now, it’s up to us to decide how to deal with it. Whine and cry that we were cheated and duped, or seize the day and do what we are good at: engineer our way out.

“It’s interesting how much this industry likes staring at its own navel, rather than looking (or listening) to other points of view. It is what I call ‘violent agreement’.”

No matter how violently you may disagree with this view, it is vital that you be aware that it exists within the same group that you are part of.

So we have the beginnings of a split, of something that could become a gulf, between the high-precision and the consumer segments of the industry.

On the second hand, we have the military, many of whom — now these are the oldtimers — are secretly pleased by the travail the industry and civil users are going through. Because they never really liked sharing GPS with the civils anyway. However shortsighted, impractical, and shoot-yourself-in-the-foot this attitude may seem, it also exists, and is held by powerful, influential people.

Third, some people within and without the GNSS community accept some or all of the LightSquared claims: that there’s no problem, or if there is a problem then filters can solve it, that alternative solutions are ready-to-hand or can be found through diligence. You may disagree, violently or non-violently, with these believers; you must still take them into serious account.

Finally, JAVAD GNSS has announced a partnership with LightSquared and declared that “LightSquared not only can coexist with GPS, it complements it.” The company has always set an independent course, but this breaks new ground.

What to do?

My colleague Eric Gakstatter perceived the need for a more broad-based organization, an all-inclusive industry and users association, which the GPS Industry Council patently is not, however earnestly it has tried to serve that purpose in the absence of anyone else to do so.

Almost simultaneously, Glen Gibbons wrote a column in his magazine proposing just such an association. “The need for more effective, continuing organization and representation of the GNSS community — manufacturers, service providers, and users — seems clear. . . . Common interests abound, and I’m not just referring to the RF issues that fuel the present furor,” he stated.

We have an assortment of forums already: the Civil Global Positioning System Service Interface Committee, industry councils in the United States, Europe, and Japan, the Institute of Navigation. But these bodies cannot represent nor accomplish — it is not in their respective charters to do so — all that must be represented and accomplished.

Building and maintaining a new entity will not be easy, because the GNSS community is more diverse, and I venture to say more divided, than we may like to admit. A consensus-driven organization of divergent interests is a very ornery thing; just ask the European Union about its efforts to mount Galileo.

A coalition of like-minded folks united around one issue differs greatly from a broad organization assembling diverse points of view. The GPS community may never speak with one voice, even in the matter of its own survival. But other courses of action lie open to us.

Test Till You Drop. The new phase of Lower 10 testing extends into November. After that, the JAVAD filter technology must be widely distributed, as soon as it is available, to all interested parties and rigorously tested to determine its validity and, equally important, its extrapolability to other proprietary receiver technologies well established in the field. I dare say there are many further aspects that must be thoroughly investigated and analyzed before anybody asserts that “We’re not [doing] anything that creates problems for GPS safety and service.” Because Julius Genachowski said we can’t.

Long after the unfounded claims and the tortured analogies have lapsed into dust, the laws of electromagnetic
behavior will go on working, as they have always done. And very admirably at that.

C’mon, people now,
Call on your physics.
Everybody get together,
Try to use your analytics,
Right now.

This article is tagged with , , and posted in From the Magazine, Opinions

About the Author:

Alan Cameron is editor-in-chief and publisher of GPS World magazine, where he has worked since 2000. He also writes the monthly GNSS Design & Test e-Newsletter and the Wide Awake blog.

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