At the end of every year, I title this column Directions, in which I discuss significant developments, trends, technologies, companies, etc. in the GNSS industry. This year, two entities have captured my attention and I think have the potential to significantly transform the GNSS industry.
The two entities I’m referring to are the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (LightSquared) and Europe’s GNSS Agency (Galileo).
What conversation about GNSS today can we have without LightSquared being at its center? LightSquared, or rather the FCC’s looming decision about LightSquared’s proposal, has the potential to bring significant changes to the high-precision GNSS industry in 2012 and beyond.
An FCC decision in favor of LightSquared can cause a paradigm shift in the GNSS competitive landscape in the North American market. By that, I mean significant market-share changes. The high-precision GNSS market is currently dominated by three key players: Trimble, Leica, Topcon. What if the FCC approves LightSquared’s plan, and thousands upon thousands of users need to upgrade their equipment? Will they purchase the same brand they currently own?
The answer, in my opinion, really depends on how much of an upgrade is required. Since each GPS receiver model is designed differently, the extent of the upgrade can vary greatly among GPS receiver models. Some receivers may not require anything; some may require a new antenna design; and still others may require a new antenna design and new GPS receiver circuitry design.
Since LightSquared’s plan has changed considerably over the past few months, and testing based on its latest plan isn’t complete (or even started in some cases) yet, it’s too early to say how particular receivers are going to be affected. I’m sure each manufacturer has a good idea about each of their receiver models, but they aren’t talking yet.
The current focus of testing is on the effects of the 10L (low) spectrum (10Mhz of spectrum at 1526-1536MHz), which is furthest from GPS L1 (centered at 1575.42MHz). If you recall, LightSquared’s initial plan was to roll out their service using the 10H (high) spectrum (1545-1555MHz), but that idea was abandoned in June 2011 when the Technical Working Group (TWG) testing clearly showed that GPS receivers, of all kinds, were jammed due to the 10H frequency being so close to GPS L1 and the signal being so strong compared to GPS, more than a billion times stronger.
Since the original TWG testing was focused on 10H (with some 10L testing), the affect of rolling out LightSquared’s system on 10L is not fully known. Therefore, in September 2011 the FCC (via NTIA) ordered new testing focused solely on 10L. The testing for consumer-grade GPS (mobile phones, general navigation) was to be completed and analyzed by November 30, 2011. The NTIA has not released any information regarding the test results. My guess is that the testing will show that mobile phones and general navigation devices will be free of interference since those GPS receivers don’t need to use the entire GPS band (only 2MHz) like high-precision GPS receivers do (20+MHz), and aren’t designed to use GPS correction services broadcast in the MSS spectrum (such as OmniSTAR and Starfire).
Separately, the DoD (Department of Defense) is conducting their own classified tests to understand the affect of 10L on military GPS receivers. We may hear bits and pieces of the results, but I’m guessing the DoD test results will largely remain classified and therefore not be made known to the general public. Interestingly enough, the DoD holds the most powerful LightSquared trump card, although we’ll likely never know if it was played.
Preparing of NPEF Test report for NCO, EXCOM and NTIA/FCC
Scope Next LightSquared Test Phase(s)
- High Precision and Timing Receivers (different timelines)
- Awaiting LSQ-provided High Precision and Timing Filters (November and March 2012 respectively), antennas and handsets.
- Tentatively, Spring of 2012
- Test Test Types – Lab; Chamber; Live Sky; Aggregate Effects
- Test Agency/Location – TBD
-Funding – Cost Estimate; Source TBD
LightSquared is fighting the time clock.
Industry analyst Tim Farrar projects that LightSquared could run out of cash as early as April 2012. Wall Street isn’t helping, as the value of LightSquared’s debt has declined as much as 50 percent or more. Obviously, the company is scrambling. Last month, it told the FCC that the agency should ignore the opinions of other Federal agencies when evaluating their GPS-jamming problem.
Another time crunch problem it has is its deal with Sprint. LightSquared isn’t “building towers,” at least for the bulk of their infrastructure. It is relying on an agreement with Sprint in which it will pay Sprint $9 billion over an 11-year period to use Sprint’s infrastructure, paying some $290 million up front.
Sprint CFO Joseph Euteneuer, during Sprint’s 2Q 2011 Earnings Call, said “we’ve gotten the $290 million.” Furthermore, Euteneuer stated “…we will be getting pre-funding of any work that we would be doing for LightSquared.”
Regarding the GPS-jamming problem, Euteneuer said “…we need clear GPS spectrum before we go forward. So we can get started with a lot of the planning and those things, but we need to get clearance on the spectrum before we start any heavy construction.”
Sprint has the right to terminate the deal with LightSquared if LightSquared doesn’t receive FCC approval on the 20MHz (10L and 10H) of MSS spectrum by the end of this month. Clearly, that isn’t going to happen. Maybe Sprint will grant an extension to LightSquared, but it has to know the only thing LightSquared might bring to the table at this point is 10L sometime next year, and even that is a crap shoot given the huge cost that the Fed/state/local government agencies would incur in addition to private corporations, not to mention the DoD and FAA discussion above. Finally, Sprint has to know that there’s no chance for the 10H spectrum to be approved in the foreseeable future. The June 2011 Technical Working Group (TWG) test report clearly showed that 10H jams virtually all GPS receivers.
That leaves LightSquared in a really tough spot, and is the reason its public relations campaign machine has really cranked up these past few months.
Today (Wednesday, Dec. 7), LightSquared announced that “testing conducted by an independent laboratory has confirmed that several major high-precision receivers, including those developed by GPS pioneer, Javad GNSS, are 100 percent compatible with LightSquared’s network. These results show that LightSquared is well on its way to demonstrating that GPS interference issues have been resolved.” The message lacks specifics, and there has as yet been no verification of the unnamed independent lab’s results.
LightSquared is taking the message this week to Capitol Hill trying to convince uninformed legislators and other public officials that the end is in sight. The problem is…it’s not true.
- LightSquared’s preliminary “independent testing” indicates that some receivers are tested to be 50 percent compatible with LightSquared’s network. Remember, we are only talking about 10L at this point, which is only half of LightSquared’s spectrum. Since LightSquared has not abandoned the 10H spectrum, it’s not true to say “100 percent compatible with LightSquared’s network.”
- These are newly-developed receivers, which means hundreds of thousands of high-precision receivers would be obsolete. Who will pay for replacing/upgrading them?
- LightSquared’s “independent testing” doesn’t include FAA (aviation) or DoD (military) testing.
- LightSquared’s “independent testing” doesn’t include LightSquared mobile devices (they don’t exist yet). As I’ve written before, they are potential portable GPS jammers.
- LightSquared’s “independent testing” announcement provides no details on GPS performance. A performance hit of 2 or 3 db of signal strength can make a significant difference when tracking in marginal GPS conditions.
Galileo – Europe’s satellite navigation system
Unfortunately, the ongoing LightSquared debate has overshadowed one of the most important events in the history of GNSS, the launch of the first two operational Galileo satellites in October 2011.
For more than a decade, Galileo has been discussed and debated, to the point that few believed it would ever come to fruition. Even today, some folks still don’t believe Galileo is real. Given the history and the current state of the European economy, I don’t blame them.
However, the chips are down, and the stack is high. Europe is “all in.” As the Galileo folks head further down the road, it becomes much more difficult to pull back. The next launch of two Galileo sats is slated for next summer. The four are dedicated for In-Orbit Validation (IOV), but unlike the two Galileo test satellites that have been in orbit for several years (GIOVE-A, GIOVE-B), the latest IOV satellites will become part of the operational Galileo constellation of 30.
Whereas I’m bullish on Galileo, the schedule is a bit more unpredictable. The European GNSS Agency (GSA) estimates that the first 18 Galileo satellites will be in orbit in the 2014/2015 timeframe. If they stick to it, it would have a profound effect on the GNSS industry fairly soon. As I’ve written before, Galileo supports the new L5 signal along with GPS; this means that L1/L5 dual-frequency, dual-constellation GNSS receivers will be low-cost and very accurate. Regardless if Galileo sticks to its schedule or not (not to mention GPS sticking to its own schedule), when Galileo does finally have 18 satellites operating in orbit, it will change GNSS positioning forever.
Webinar – December 8, 2011
I’m pleased to participate in a webinar featuring Dr. Javad Ashjaee who is presenting his solution for the LightSquared interference problem. If you’re unable to attend, please register anyway and you will be emailed instructions on how to view the webinar at your convenience. It will be available for download within a few days of the live presentation.
Thanks, and see you next time.