What if LightSquared is Right about GPS?

LightSquared Files with FCC: GPS Industry’s Failure to Comply With Department of Defense and International Standards for GPS Receivers Cause of Interference

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So, I've been thinking lately about how the land surveying industry has not demanded and been stewards for improvements, necessary and long overdue improvements, in various aspects of the resources and technologies we use as a profession.

This lack of improvement and stewardship in areas like: land records, business practices, location technology and software packages, are just a few examples of where we have not asked enough, nor done enough. In some areas, like land records, there has not been enough improvements to the systems by the governmental agencies overseeing these records.

In other areas, like GPS, there has been great strides and improvements in the technology available, improvements to the way land surveyors work, and is a technology that has brought great improvements to society as a whole.

Today's Success is Fleeting, at Best.

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However, the world is not static and times change while expectations grow, while your outstanding work of today may be assessed as being lackluster by tomorrow's standards. It is not fair, but that's life (at last that's what people say).

So, has the GPS industry done enough to modernize and meet the needs of the land surveying industry (and others)? A few weeks ago I was reading through some of LightSquared documents, where they claimed that the GPS manufacturers had not properly designed their systems and equipment to meet government standards.

During this same period, I've either spoken with, or read comments from, several professional land surveyors questioning what these GPS manufacturers who sold their equipment with nary a word of it being possible that their equipment could be rendered useless will do to compensate buyers if their GPS equipment becomes obsolete. Good question! Do I hear a class action lawsuit in the works?

What if LightSquared is Right?

First, let's take a look at what LightSquared is claiming:

  • The GPS industry’s failed to comply with the Department of Defense’s (DoD) filtering standards. The DoD’s Global Positioning System Standard Positioning Service Performance Standard, issued in September 2008, calls for GPS receivers to filter out transmissions from adjacent bands in order to achieve the performance intended to be provided by the GPS system.
  •  The GPS industry also has spurned international recommendations for GPS receiver design. Since 2000, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency that sets international standards for radio and satellite spectrum, has cautioned that “a more stringent pre-correlator filter may be needed to protect [GPS] receiver operations from adjacent band RF emissions.”
  • "The GPS industry benefits from an estimated $18 billion taxpayer subsidy to offer a commercial service that is completely dependent on a government satellite system.  Despite the federal handout, they have deliberately ignored Defense Department criteria for using the restricted system,” Carlisle said. “LightSquared remains committed to working in partnership with responsible members of the GPS industry and for the benefit of the public by creating good-paying jobs and economic opportunity at a time when America desperately needs both.”
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GPS Constellation

LightSquared's strongest argument, that the GPS industry’s failed to comply with the Department of Defense’s (DoD) filtering standards, sounds good on paper, but I've also heard it claimed that the technology for this filtering does not yet exist and that the issue has more to do with signal strength - GPS signals are week while LightSquared signals will be strong - than it is about filtering.

LightSquared Executive Vice President for Regulatory Affairs & Public Policy Jeffrey Carlisle wrote in a letter filed at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC):

“Had the GPS industry complied with DoD’s recommended filtering standards for GPS receivers, there would be no issue with LightSquared’s operations in the lower portion of its downlink band,”

So, yes, it could be that LightSquared is right. However, I think that is unimportant because there is a larger issue in play, that the GPS industry has, in fact, rested on it's laurels instead of seeking continuous and exponential improvements. Is that asking too much?

Money Talks, Everything Else Walks, and Other Lessons to be Learned

I would expect that it's money which will decide this issue, rather than any technical issues at hand (call me cynical). I think this is especially true in Washington, DC where money talks and everything else walks.

Lessons Learned:

  • Real Estate is valuable and will be fought over, whether it's land or radio spectrum.
  • Money often trumps facts. Within the law, you only have a problem in business if you don't have enough money to buy a solution.
  • If you need to submit to a government agency for an approval, hire former agency workers as consultants.
  • Lazy, bad judgement and lack of imagination kills industries. LightSquared is GPS's bogeyman today, but I'm sure that this will only be the first of many bogeymen to come.
  • The GPS industry should look into inventing the technologies necessary for GPS receivers to filter out transmissions from adjacent bands in order to achieve the performance intended to be provided by the GPS system.
  • Government subsidies often breed contempt for ambition.
  • Be prepared (it's not just for Boy Scouts) for your GPS equipment to stop working if LightSquared gets its way.

Again, maybe LightSquared's proposal is a problem for GPS, particularly high-precision devices, which are used for agriculture, surveying, construction, or maybe not?

To me, it is only a relevant because the GPS industry and the Federal Government failed to make substantive improvements to GPS (regardless of the LightSquared issues) to propel our industry, and others, to where they should be. Yes, GPS is great, but we want more!

Eric D. Colburn, PLS, "The Geo-Business Innovator", helps geo-professionals improve through innovative solutions, mastery of marketing and business growth strategies, and coaching/training. Eric is a successful, serial entrepreneur, podcaster, industry writer, product development consultant, and RI licensed professional land surveyor.

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