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Too Fast, Too Furious

Mar 2012 | No Comment

Was Haste the Undoing of LightSquared in the GPS-Broadband Controversy?

Gavin Schrock

PLS Administrator,
Washington State Reference Network Seattle Public Utilities, USA

 
“He who sows hurry reaps indigestion” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Innovation, progress, and responsible actions

Innovation and progress are essential, and an imperative, but only if bourn of responsible actions. A recent battle between two of the pillars of innovation and progress; satellite-based positioning, and wireless communications represent such high stakes that some have been driven to advocate for irresponsible actions to support or rationalize their respective positions.

Despite recent regulatory and financial blows to the broadband startup LightSquared, the battle roils on between the GPS industry and this wireless industry aspirant, both with substantialfinancial interests in the outcome. No expense has been spared by the foes, with lobbying, public relations posturing, and mutual accusations of influence pedaling and muckraking reminiscent of political campaigns. For all of the technical, legal, political, and emotional arguments for and against, a key segment of stakeholders is almost exclusively left out of deliberations; the end users of GPS. These end users range from those who rely directly on GPS for industry, safety, and national security, to those who may not even be aware of how much GPS affects their lives and livelihoods, and the very taxpayers who funded the GPS constellation and entrust the U.S. government with managing not only this valuable amenity, but the radio spectrum in which it operates. It is also these very end users that would bear the greatest burdens if this matter is not resolved with due care.

An excellent summary [http:// mycoordinates.org/it-cannot-go-onforever% E2%80%A6-we-have-to-fi nd-asolution/] of the technical considerations in this controversy and call for solutions by Dr Durk van Willigen appears in the January 2012 Coordinates. Dr Van Williegn’s call for resolution serves as a great starting point from which to look back and examine the conflicting motivations in play, and how they might reveal common ground for future equitable resolutions – this issue will rise again. The tale begins with grand ideals, but flaws and challenges were to be revealed; and many believe that these issues should have been thought out and resolved long before and plan came up for approval. Everything Dr Van Willigen proposes is worthy of open dialogue and actionable items, but only if the interests of the end users and practicalities of implementation are duly considered.

Critical GPS infrastructure and aviation safety were cited by the US government in its recent decision to all but halt the controversial LightSquared broadband plan

This collision of two uses of public radio spectrum; that of satellite global positioning, and that of high speed wireless data began, arguably with noble intentions. The hunger for more wireless capacity is driven not only by consumer uses, and as some may characterize an almost addiction to streaming media, but also that a boost in capacity has been characterized by some as a panacea for lackluster economies. You will find very few, even among those opposing the specific wireless plan in question, that are actually opposed to expanded wireless capacity; but there are dramatically differing views on just how much should be sacrificed to achieve this goal – a case of “Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same” George Bernard Shaw

Intentions and actions – Both noble and ignoble

Calls for adding 500MHz of additional wireless capacity have come from a broad range of interests, including a specific initiative from White House [www.whitehouse.gov/the-pressoffi ce/2011/02/10/president-obamadetails- plan-win-future-through-expandedwireless- access]. The goal is laudable, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) [www.fcc.gov] that oversees the public radio spectrum would be tasked with identifying underutilized spectrum and fostering initiatives to activate the same. It is perhaps a great disservice to this ambitious initiative that one of the first proposed plans to seek enhanced wireless would become so mired in controversy and more so that this specific plan represents only about 6% of the original 500MHz sought. The wireless startup, LightSquared sought approval from the FCC in 2010 to offer terrestrial wireless services in spectrum it acquired from a satellite communications company it purchased in 2010, as an adjunct to existing satellite services. This idea of a dual-use system has been explored for many years, and more than one wireless company are pursuing the same, but in different spectrum.

The plan was sure to spark controversy as the spectrum in question is adjacent to the L-Band in which GPS operates; which many view as critical infrastructure. The spectrum that LightSquared would propose for this ambitious plan is in what is known as Mobile Satellite Spectrum (MSS). Many elements of the MSS bands were established by the FCC and international treaties, through such bodies as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) [http://www.itu.int/pub/RHDB- 41], as reserved for low power satellite transmissions. GPS, adjacent to the subject MSS band has, without restriction for three decades used a “wide-band” approach, as many satellite based applications do, to get the most out of the weak signals; namely looking into the traditionally “quiet” adjacent MSS band for as much GPS signal as possible. Three decades of innovation, based on this completely unrestricted approach, have enabled feats of exemplary engineering; taking rough positioning capabilities of uncorrected GPS from precisions expressed in meters, to that of millimeters – even in real time. The economic value that GPS has yielded has been estimated to range in the hundreds of billions of dollars (USD), and likely much more worldwide – unprecedented when you consider that GPS is free and was originally designed for defense purposes.

In January of 2011 the FCC granted a waiver [http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_ Releases/Daily_Business/2011/db0126/ DA-11-133A1.pdf] to LightSquared to begin terrestrial transmissions from as many as 40,000 towers for an Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC), as part of the proposed dual-mode plan. The waiver had strict conditions though, and in an explicit acknowledgement of the incumbent and valued uses of GPS, the FCC would not allow commencement of transmissions unless the potential interference (that the very powerful terrestrial transmissions would pose for the much weaker GPS signals) were resolved. At first glance the proposal had immediate appeal; a private company willing to invest billions into a new source of wireless bandwidth. But many recognized immediately the potential for conflict that such a dramatic imbalance of signals strengths would pose, and were puzzled as to how and why the waiver had ever been granted when such interference seemed inevitable. Those concerns were just the beginning…

The GPS industry immediately expressed concerns, and a broad coalition [http:// www.saveourgps.org/] of not only GPS manufacturers but public and private interests who may rely greatly on GPS was formed. The FCC ordered tests to be overseen jointly by both LightSquared and the GPS Industry Council. The first round of tests, those focused on the upper portion of the proposed LightSquared spectrum, completed in mid-2011, showed substantial interference across all types of GPS devices examined, these undisputed results published in a 1,000 page final report [http://saveourgps.org/ interference-studies.aspx]. If indeed there was verifiable interference hazards to GPS from the original plan, such news did not serve to settle the issue, but instead spurred a war of words and actions, both noble and ignoble. The heated exchanges only served to further marginalize the concerns of the end users; the costs, monetarily, and in lost productivity, safety, and security would be mainly levied upon the end users if the plan were to be approved.

Arguments, both in opposition and support, the likes of which one would have never imagined would be aired with regards to something as ubiquitous to commerce, safety, and security as is GPS, began to take on tones which hindered reasonable examination of any possible solutions. As the technical failures of the plan, evidenced by the first round of the tests, became more obvious, some supporters began fashioning a straw man of GPS; issuing charges of “unlicensed uses” and spectral “poaching”. In the absence of any formal legal findings or proceedings to support such statements, these accusations and characterizations could be utilized quite effectively in the court of public opinion. These tactics may have swayed the opinions of some, but for the public entities charged with judging the issue of whether the conditions of the waiver had been met, such accusations may have simply been brushed aside as (to borrow from Milton) “obtruding false rules pranked in reason’s garb”. In the end, the reasons stated for the FCC proposal to vacate the waiver, essentially halting the plan in its tracks, had little to do with any of the posturing, but instead of the disruption that would befall the current unrestricted uses of GPS; primarily the public safety risks.

Assessing assertions and assumptions

The controversy also inspired not only the federal agencies charged with evaluating the plan, but even average end users to more closely research and scrutinize arguments for and against the plan. Once it was established that yes, there would be interference as many had predicted, then some tried to weigh the purported value of the proposed wireless plan against the expected disruptions to GPS. How much would be an acceptable loss? And how much could actually be gained? Positioning and communications are completely different in nature and value, and no one who relies heavily on one or the other could be expected to completely reconcile some sort of trade-off equation; but supporters of each side did try. Some of these contested points stand out:
A spectrum crisis has been offered as rationale for dramatic spectral moves: Nearly anyone with a mobile phone has experienced at some time or another overloaded services, there is most certainly a flood of new mobile data users. But how much does this represent the “traffic jam” within the spectrum and system of a specific carrier and how much does it represent a shortage across all spectrum? Some have even suggested that the crisis [http://gigaom.com/broadband/is-thespectrum- crisis-a-myth/] is contrived or exaggerated to boost rapid adoption of such plans. One may not agree with such skeptical views, but before such potentially disruptive plans are considered, would it not be prudent to have a full and independent examination of just how much spectrum is being underutilized, or may be idle, or “sat on” by current licensees? If there is as many hold, a pending crisis that has not otherwise been brought about by mismanagement of existing spectrum, then why should GPS users be singled out as those who have to “take the bullet” to solve the crisis?

The proposed plan has appealing aspects; the idea of a wholesale wireless data provider service, with a potential to bring down prices. There were also those who concluded that the proposed services would not ultimately be as unique and ubiquitous [http://tmfassociates.com/blog/2011/12/07/ theres-no-there-there/] as some would like them to believe. Documents recently released through Freedom of Information requests have even indicated that the pricing for the data may not have been as much of a bargain as originally asserted. Many asked the question: Was the plan so compelling or different from existing wireless services, or other plans under way that do not pose a potential hazard to GPS?

Following the initial damaging tests, a revision to the original plan was offered; to begin transmission in the lower portion of the spectrum in question. This offered potential for possible solutions, and the FCCC ordered more tests. Many manufacturers began developing engineering solutions as a contingency if the plan were to be approved, though conventional wisdom held that there would not be enough time to plan for all contingencies. Most manufacturers were careful to remain sensitive to the end users and not trumpet such moves, as it would be the end users that would ultimately have to pay them for whatever solutions they might come up with. There is a big difference between developing solutions in response to, or in anticipation of a potential hazard, and the open advocacy for the rapid precipitation of the hazard –there were some, though few, in even the GPS industry and related academia that would to do just that. The argument most supporters of the plan offer is “this is just the price of progress” – others would balk at what would appear to be cavalier disregard for the finances, livelihoods, safety, and security of others. Even if the motivations of the supporters may have come from pure intention, it can be viewed by end users as self serving and perhaps exploitive of the situation. One can only speculate on motivations, but it does not look good.

Subsequent tests of the interim compromise to start with the lower portion of the spectrum were reported to show that there was still a risk of interference for a hundreds of thousands of general navigation devices, including critical systems used for civil aviation ground collision avoidance. These tests, while disputed by LightSquared, were the driver for the significant February 14th, 2012 letter from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the federal agency directly advising the FCC on the LightSquared issue. The letter [http:// www.ntia.doc.gov/fcc-filing/2012/ntialightsquared- recommendation-fcc] from NTIA chief Lawrence Strickling to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski concludes “at this time that there are no mitigation strategies that both solve the interference issues and provide LightSquared with an adequate commercial network deployment”. As expected, concerns for civil aviation and national security held the greatest weight in deliberations. The NTIA also recommended a long period of study of these issues and spectral policy change proposals, with a longer transition period added for any negotiated changes. The FCC released a statement almost immediately, stating that it plans to vacate the waiver; because of the impacts on GNSS.

Answers posing more questions

LightSquared continues to publicly refute the conclusions of the NTIA and FCC, and with so much at stake right in at least demanding scrutiny of the process, seeking clarification of some allegedly conflicting past FCC policies, and pressing for serious consideration of possible solutions, but there is a lot left to be desired in the sometimes inflammatory manner in which they have done so. One such move came, perhaps in anticipation of the PNT finding, in the form of a new petition from LightSquared to the FCC for a declaratory ruling on whether GPS users should be entitled to protections for the type of current “wide band” usage with respects to the adjacent MSS band. The FCC, as standard process dictates, has opened a public comment period on the matter [http://www.fcc.gov/ document/pleading-cycle-lightsquaredpetition- declaratory-ruling. It is to be noted that the FCC carefully separated this current petition from consideration of the original waiver, which it now seeks to rescind, along with some earlier related authorizations related to disputed ancillary terrestrial service provisions.

All of the posturing a politics has left the end users only further disenfranchised and questioning the process. While others might argue that the “ball glanced off the wicket”, the end users want solid findings; unless they see “dislodged bales”, then no out can be scored (apologies for U.S. readers for the cricket analogy; perhaps it should be that the end users “wished to see the instant replay”). End users were left in an untenable situation, not knowing whether they must replace or upgrade their equipment, and if subsequent legal moves could bring about more rounds of spectral changes. Users are told that perhaps engineering solutions could enable both increased wireless capacity in the MSS band without harming GPS, but no one offered how this might be done without tremendous potential impacts to production, finances, safety and security. Even if such solutions were readily available (and thus far only solutions for a narrow range of equipment, and spectrum have been tested, though not yet by any of the officiating bodies) an implementation plan both in physical practicalities and needed policy changes has not been offered by any parties.

Supporters of the plan are promoting the idea of “receiver standards”, as have proponents of other unrelated initiatives in the past. This would be completely unprecedented as the FCC is not in business of receiver standards, and it has been generally concluded that the FCC may not have specific authority [http://www.fhhlaw.com/resources/ TelecomLaw/2003/may/0503tl_10. pdf ] to enforce such standards. Federal agencies and GPS supporters are seeking establishment of “protection criteria”; the NTIA and FCC have indicated that both may be explored. Such a tangle of ideas; but the road to solution that would be simpler than we might think, though it might not be satisfactory for all parties, it may have been solution that does the least amount of harm – if only this solution had been explored before this ill fated plan were put in motion…

Time, money, and engineering can fix anything?

When it comes to issues of protecting public interests in technological challenges, it is often said that time, money, and engineering can fix anything. But only with the right balance of all three.

There has been some promising progress on engineering solutions; but so far these prototypes have only addressed a very narrow class of GPS receivers, and only for the less volatile lower section of the spectrum in question. The upper section, that had proven universally damaging in the earlier joint tests, had not formally been taken off the table as it is unlikely that the plan could find profitability with lower band alone. Such modest successes, while demonstrating that solutions may someday be viable, were construed by some as being an answer to all concerns. The NTIA and FCC, and especially civil aviation (for which no solutions had been offered to date) did not accept such a premise.

The FCC is in the business of both protecting the public’s interests in the spectrum that the public owns. One misconception is that a company “owns” spectrum, not so, they hold a license for spectrum for a specific use, with strict conditions attached – the public owns the spectrum. The FCC must promote and enable the most efficient uses possible of the public spectrum. The same is too said of the multiple agencies that oversee and manage GPS, but positioning is not the direct realm of the FCC. There has to be synchronicity between these two realms; positioning and communications policies. And that major changes in either; whether they are backed up by nuanced policy and laws, or evidenced by generally accepted usage – effective management of these amenities should require that all outstanding issues be solved before a potentially disruptive plan was waivered. That there are so many outstanding issues resulting in this current battle to have done a great disservice to the end users of GPS, the users of wireless broadband, LightSquared and its investors, and the international standing of the U.S. with regards to Global Positioning Systems.

The solution may lay in the middle ground between what many view as a recklessly hasty plan, and adherence to the status quo of current GPS capabilities and solutions. Engineering solutions are certainly worth pursuing, and with such potential for profitable ventures serving hungry broadband markets, it would certainly be worth investments in such engineering. Time though, is the wild card in the equation.

Time Heals

With enough of a transition time, spanning standard replacements cycles for equipment, the end users could be spared paying the whole bill themselves. Civil Aviation and the FAA could have time to develop and certify new equipment and continue with development of the NextGen of air traffic systems. The improvements to satellite navigation constellations, like GPS, Glonass, Compass, and Galileo could have time to reach maturity, and users could take advantage of those enhancements. There are precedents for allowing sufficient transition time to phase in potentially disruptive changes brought on by policy and technological progress; the transition to Digital TV in the U.S, was one overseen by the FCC, and the optional sunset of the P(Y) code of the GPS constellation [https://www. federalregister.gov/articles/2008/09/23/ E8-22197/preservation-of-continuityfor- semi-codeless-gps-applications] by U.S. positioning authorities was announced in 2008, giving a full 12 years for the users and manufacturers of codeless and semi-codeless GPS solutions to plan for the possible change.

Of course LightSquared could not be faulted for at least attempting rapid adoption; they had investors and deadlines… but a longer term plan could have also been a “win”. Valuable spectrum could be money in the bank, much in the same way as an offshore lease awaiting the development of safe deep water drilling technologies can be a great addition to a corporate portfolio. But they would have had to be patient.

This matter is not only of concern to the GPS users of the U.S. That such a precedent for retasking of satellite spectrum and potential harm to GPS had even been considered has both puzzled and frightened the international positioning community and policy makers. Yes, the world may be increasingly dependent on wireless communications, but this is also becoming a world increasing dependent on positioning and spatial technologies to boost economic activity, manage resources and assets, and protect the property and safety of the public. Both are needed, but not one at the expense of another.

Ironically, it is the fate of this plan that is rapidly changing in the days following the FCC proposal to all but halt it. There are defecting inventors, lawsuits, talk of bankruptcy or spectrum swaps, defaulted payments, and more – by the time this goes to print, there could be completely different players involved. It is almost tragic for both broadband and GPS that this episode came to this end. Whatever the outcome, or fate of LightSquared, the dialogue into solutions and alternatives should continue. But this must include all stakeholders. It was difficult to foster such conversations when there is a kind of spectral gun being held to the head of the end users. But despite this, a solution for the future, with enough time to implement is not out of the realm of possibility…

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