LightSquared’s been in the news quite a bit since my last Survey Scene newsletter a month ago, but very little of it has actual consequence. A lot of the “news” is just noise. LightSquared pumped up its propaganda campaign nationwide to try to build a consensus in their favor and put pressure on the FCC, and is threatening a lawsuit if the FCC doesn’t do what LightSquared wants. No surprises there. However, other things have happened that I think you might be interested in hearing about.
Most interesting was the partnership announced between JAVAD GNSS and LightSquared to develop a solution for LightSquared’s GPS-jamming problem. I had the opportunity to sit down briefly with Dr. Javad Ashjaee at the INTERGEO conference in Germany after he announced his company’s partnership with LightSquared. He’s a sharp engineer and well-worth listening to. Essentially, he made three points:
1. This is a spectrum issue that isn’t going away even if LightSquared isn’t allowed to proceed, so it’s in the best interest of the GPS industry to work on a solution no matter what the FCC’s decision is.
I’ve written about this issue before and I agree that the MSS spectrum has got a bull’s-eye on it. It’s a big piece of spectrum when not a lot of wireless spectrum is left to be developed. One could argue that it has its purpose as an MSS band, but the counter to that argument is that it’s under-performing. There’s only so much one can do with MSS spectrum.
That leaves two choices: the first is to keep it allocated as low-power MSS (satellite-to-earth communications) as it has historically been used. It could also be officially established and recognized as a guard band for GPS so this problem doesn’t crop up again. GPS is an important enough national asset to make this a reasonable discussion. The LightSquared debate has done a fantastic job of raising awareness of the importance of GPS technology in our everyday lives as well as the commercial and military markets. GPS has and will continue to contribute more jobs, revenue, and growth to the U.S. and world economy than LightSquared could ever dream of. You can quickly dismiss anyone who claims otherwise.
2.Secondly, Dr. Ashjaee opines that 4G LTE is something that the GPS industry needs. I don’t disagree with that statement. More and more you see the latest high-precision GPS receivers designed with integrated communications, primarily GSM modems to enable internet connectivity in the field. Connectivity in the field has always been a weak point of GPS systems. If one wireless technology could replace UHF/VHF/Spreadspectrum/GSM/MSS, that would be a good thing.
I’m skeptical, though. I don’t believe LightSquared will be available where many GPS users need wireless communications even when it’s fully deployed — namely rural areas. They are going to chase after the money. The money is in the urban areas where the population is dense. Who in their right mind would spend money to establish and maintain infrastructure in areas with a very sparse potential customer base? I wouldn’t.
So, that still leaves us with needing UHF/VHF/Spreadspectrum/GSM/MSS communications technology. It doesn’t solve the problem. But, I’m not against trying as long as LightSquared’s system has no affect on the performance of high-precision GPS/GNSS receivers.
Incidentally, JAVAD GNSS intends to integrate a LightSquared mobile device into their product to manage potential interference from the uplink band (1626.50-1660.5MHz). However, this still doesn’t prevent interference from LightSquared mobile devices in the vicinity of JAVAD receivers. To this, Dr. Ashjaee says (I’m paraphrasing) “interference already exists today. Our mobile phones of today already create interference. If that happens, we simply move it away.”
3. Lastly, Dr. Ashjaee states that with GPS modernization in full swing and with new GPS signals being deployed, GPS users are going to need to upgrade their equipment to keep up with the latest technology in order to stay productive.
This is a point that he and I disagree on.
There is no reason your GPS L1 receiver will become obsolete in the foreseeable future, whether it’s a high-performance sub-meter receiver or a cm-level surveying receiver (L1-only). There is no plan by the U.S. Government to change or obsolete the L1 C/A signal.
For legacy L1/L2 GPS receivers that aren’t designed to utilize L2C or L5, it’s a different story. If you recall, back in 2008 the U.S. government floated the idea that it wanted to discontinue supporting the legacy semicodeless technique used by every L1/L2 GPS receiver in existence. Literally, several hundred thousand high-precision dual frequency GPS receivers would be rendered obsolete. At the end of the public comment period, the U.S. Air Force and Department of Commerce established a date of December 31, 2020 for this to happen. I wrote about this extensively at the time. My point is that there’s certain high-precision equipment that’s going to become obsolete at that time. However, that’s nearly ten years from now.
Should those users be forced to upgrade earlier to accommodate LightSquared?
Another point, and more serious, are the users who already upgraded in the past few years to equipment that was advertised as “future-proof”. In other words, they paid a premium for GNSS equipment that could track “all current and planned signals” such as L2C, L5, Galileo, GLONASS, etc. There is absolutely no reason those users would be required to upgrade their equipment for any imaginable reason. In fact, I’d be rather miffed if someone suggested I needed to spend money to do so.
How much money are we talking about?
That’s an interesting question.
Dr. Ashjaee guarantees that he will upgrade all JAVAD GNSS receivers for between US$300 and US$800. If you think about it, that’s similar to what you might pay in annual maintenance fees on many receivers. The issue is that JAVAD receivers aren’t that common in the U.S. Realistically, there’s a wide variety of high-precision GPS receivers in the U.S. market. Many of them are not the latest models, but still working perfectly fine. Manufacturers are not going to re-open those product designs and try to implement LightSquared-hardened antenna and circuitry. At that point, the user’s only choice is to purchase new equipment. I think that would be a step backwards. Many small organizations were able to purchase GPS technology with a one-time grant or specific project funds. Faced with the prospect of spending thousands of dollars on a new high-precision GPS receiver, I think many would opt not to use GPS.
To its credit, LightSquared has offered up $50 million to help retrofit or otherwise upgrade receivers owned by Federal government agencies. I think it will cost a lot more than that. I don’t believe $50 million would come close to covering the hard costs, not to mention the amount of time and effort that would be required to facilitate such a trade-in.
Let’s talk about “the fix”
JAVAD GNSS has a lot on the line, so it’s hard to imagine that the company hasn’t come up with something that works. That said, the conversation about retrofitting is meaningless until the design concept is proven, and empirical data demonstrates that it isn’t affected by LightSquared’s downlink (1526-1536MHz) or uplink (1626.5-1660.5MHz) signals, and that GPS receiver performance doesn’t pay a penalty.
Of course, LightSquared is talking like this is a done deal and predicting FCC approval by the end of the year. This is just noise, like back in August when it predicted an FCC decision within a month. Do not put any credibility in LightSquared statements. Its track record is poor, as few of their claims have materialized.
There’s no way the FCC is going to announce a decision by the end of the year. Mark my words. There’s not enough time to confirm a fix, how it might be implemented across multiple manufacturer’s receivers, and what the impact is. Believe me, there are many more hearings and information requests that are going to take place before any decisions are made by the FCC.
The “fix”, as I understand it, includes a new antenna design as well as new circuitry (filter). If you understand the high-precision GPS industry, you know this includes a substantial number of handheld units such as the Trimble Geo series, Ashtech (formerly Magellan) Mobile Mapper and ProMark series to name a few. Replacing antennas and changing circuit design is not a minor effort in a handheld unit that’s already packed tight with electronics. Which models do you support? Which models don’t you support? Which models can’t be upgraded? There are many questions to answer.
New antennas also mean new antenna calibrations by the NGS if you’re an OPUS user. Manufacturer software needs to be updated to reflect any change in antenna phase center. All of this will take time to investigate and understand. It should not be rushed just because LightSquared is in a hurry. Its “end of year” decision prediction, I’m sure, is directly correlated to an agreement with Sprint, which says the deal is off if FCC approval isn’t granted by the end of the year. Take a look at the Sprint presentation here.
Don’t let LightSquared over-simplify this “fix.” LightSquared Executive VP and lawyer Jeff Carlisle likes to play “engineer” like he did last week at a congressional hearing looking at the LightSquared GPS-jamming impact on small business. I couldn’t believe it when he pulled out a massive GPS receiver head and demonstrated how he would retrofit it with a $6 component to solve the problem, even going so far as showing where he would place it on a circuit board. The sad part is that there was not an engineer in sight to call him on it. Take a look at the 4:50 mark in this video:
Speaking of last week’s hearing, what a nightmare for the GPS industry. The House Committee on Small Business conducted a hearing entitled “LightSquared: The Impact to Small Business GPS Users.”
Whoever put that panel together really did a disservice to this entire debate. LightSquared clearly came out on top, not because they should have, but because the witness list was not informed/prepared and the witness list wasn’t represented by the largest users of GPS in small business, surveying/engineering/construction/GIS.
The epitome of this trainwreck was when Rep. Steve King asked the guy representing the agricultural community about delineation of spectrum.
The grilling starts at the 1:49 minute mark and ends at the 4:20 minute mark.
Somehow, the witness doesn’t know or doesn’t know how to communicate that LightSquared/Skyterra sells satellite communications services to the high-precision GPS user community (via OmniSTAR) and therefore has encouraged GPS receiver manufacturers to design receivers to look into the MSS spectrum. LightSquared/Skyterra has generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue from agriculture and other high-precision GPS users, and now it is whining about the very people who are paying for its satellite communications data services? Are you kidding me?
Look, if LightSquared doesn’t want to sell satellite data communication services to the high-precision GPS industry anymore, that’s its decision, but don’t make this ridiculous claim that somehow GPS receiver designers are abusing LightSquared-licensed spectrum when LightSquared has been cashing in on it.
By the way, if you watch the grilling video, the “first-come, first-served” argument is really weak. Someone needs to brief the witness better than that. Even I don’t believe in squatter’s rights, and that argument will never fly with the FCC.
ACSM Radio Show Last Monday on LightSquared
I spent an hour talking with ACSM Executive Director Curt Sumner about the latest on LightSquared. We also touched a bit on the exciting Galileo satellite launch scheduled for this week, Oct. 20, that ended up being postponed for a day. You can listen to the radio broadcast here or download and listen to it on your MP3 player.
The debate goes on…stay tuned.
Thanks, and see you next time.
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