Turning up the heat on the FCC

June 29, 2011 by Craig Fuller

This morning I’m at Concord Airport in New Hampshire taking part in a news conference with Congressman Charlie Bass, who’s really turning up the heat on the FCC.

Congressman Charlie Bass

Congressman Charlie Bass talking to the press about the importance of saving GPS.

By now you’ve probably heard about the unprecedented battle for the future of GPS. The FCC has granted waivers to LightSquared to build a communications network that interferes with, and even blocks, GPS signals. As pilots, we all know how critical GPS is to our safety, to our all-weather access to thousands of airports, and to the FAA’s NextGen modernization program. But apparently, the FCC doesn’t get it.

That’s why Congressman Bass has gathered representatives of numerous groups who depend on GPS to alert the media and the public to our very serious concerns. Sometimes you have to turn up the heat to get folks in Washington to see the light. And I want to thank Congressman Bass for doing just that.

It seems we may have to keep raising the temperature if we’re going to put a stop to this project.

Last week, I testified before Congress about the dangers of allowing LightSquared to continue, asked that FCC rescind its waivers, and urged Congress to investigate how one agency could be allowed to single-handedly undermine our entire national transportation network.  And I wasn’t alone. Representatives from DOD, DOT, and the Coast Guard all had similar stories to tell. And yet, so far, LightSquared is being allowed to proceed with its plans.

And months ago, before the waivers were granted, AOPA and others warned the FCC of the potential for dire consequences if this project was approved. Since then, numerous studies have demonstrated, unequivocally, that LightSquared’s planned network cannot coexist with GPS. And yet, LightSquared is being allowed to proceed.

I am incredulous that this whole debacle could have been allowed to advance so far—and you can bet that we’ll make it uncomfortably hot for the FCC until we can be certain that GPS is available now and for decades to come. Maybe if they feel the heat, they’ll finally see the light.

20 Responses to “Turning up the heat on the FCC”

  1. Stephen Brann Says:

    I’m really curious as to the background relationships between President Obama, Julius Genachowski (FCC chairman, recess appointment by Barack Obama), Philip Falcone (Manager at Harbinger Capital Partners who have a 40% venture interest in LightSquared). Seems like some aggressive investigative reporting would likely turn up some unsavory facts, particularly in light of the huge amount of money involved – likely trillions in the long term.

  2. David Says:

    Just goes to show you the FCC does not work for us. They work for who ever has the most money.

  3. Bruce Booker Says:

    A commentor expressed his curiosity about the relationships between the White House, the FCC, and Philip Falcone. They have an interesting history.

    Phil Falcone, the founder of hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners, is currently under criminal and civil investigations by the Security Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan for allegedly failing to disclose $113 million in personal loans he took from his hedge fund to pay personal taxes. The Wall Street Journal has also reported that investigators are looking into allegations that Mr. Falcone allowed some clients to redeem funds from his hedge fund during the financial crisis of 2008, while preventing others from doing so.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, Falcone and Harbinger scored big gains for investors in 2007, but the fund has since shrunk from $26.5 billion to $9 billion from losses and client withdrawals. As of last November, the fund was off 15% for the year, and investors like Goldman Sachs and Blackstone Group had put in requests to withdraw funds.

    Also important, investors have expressed increasing concerns over Falcone’s plans to launch the LightSquared venture. The majority of Harbinger’s declining assets are pledged to this venture, which many believe is risky and underfunded. Experts believe that building this network can require as much as $40 billion, but there is a credible report that “Harbinger reckons with a suitable flexible FCC… it can get the network operable for something in the region of $6 billion.”

    None of Falcone’s plans would be successful, however, unless the Administration and the FCC intervened on his behalf. Over the past year, a series of unusual decisions, questionable meetings, and procedural anomalies at the FCC and the White House highlight Falcone’s growing influence in the government.

    Without going into pages of detail here, the FCC delayed publicly disclosing some of its dealing with Harbinger/LightSquared for weeks or months, and still has not disclosed some of them at all. An April 21, 2010 letter to FCC Chairman Genachowski from Senators Hutcinson, DeMint, Vitter and Brownback resulted in nothing more than a non-responsive letter from Genachowski on May 10. (Some of that has to do with a Harbinger/SkyTerra merger that is a critical piece of the LightSquared venture.)

    Meanwhile, Falcone developed his government influence. According to White House visitor access logs, on September 22, 2009, Falcone and LigheSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja personally visited the White House and met with the Chief of Staff at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). One day later, the Harbinger/SkyTerra merger agreement was signed.

    On September 30, 2009, one week after his September 2009 White House visit, Falcone contributed $30,400 to the DSCC, the maximum legal individual contribution limit to a party committee. His wife, Lisa Falxone, contributed an additional $30,000 to the DSCC on the same day. LightSquared’s CEO Sanjiv Ahuja also contributed $30,000 to the DNC in September 2010.

    On January 21, 2010, Falcone visited the White House again, this time for an appointment with John Holdren, the Director of the OSTP.

    In addition to well-timed political contributions to the DSCC at the height of merger review discussions, Falcone/Harbinger also secured the assistance of a lobbying firm, the Palmetto Group, via Harbinger’s legal counsel, to lobby Congress and the FCC. Steve Glaze, lobbyist with the Palmetto Group, was registered to lobby the FCC directly on mobile satellite services on Falcone’s/Harbinger’s behalf. Steve Glaze is married to Terri Glaze, a senior staffer at the FCC.

    On January 12, 2011, the National Telecommunications and Information Authority (housed within the Department of Commerce) sent a letter to FCC Chairman Genacholski objecting to the waiver. There was also a letter from Danny Price, Director of Spectrum and Communication Policy at the Department of Defense, stating that the FCC should defer action on the waiver request and place the application under a Notice of Prosed Rule-Making (NPRM).

    The United States GPS Industry Council (USGPSIC) also raised concerns in a letter. Notable, that letter included serious concerns about interference with E911 and law enforcement GPS applications.

    Nonetheless, the FCC, on delegated authority, officially granted LightSquared’s request for a waiver. In granting the waiver, the FCC chose to issue a license modification for LightSquared because of what they term “unique” circumstances, instead of modifying its rules to apply to all providers. That essentially guarantees that Falcone, and only Falcone, receives this special treatment.

    We can only speculate whether or not these “unique” circumstances are related to Falcone’s September 30, 2009 meeting with the White House, and subsequent political contributions to the DSCC. But the outcome of the FCC’s action means that other companies will not be able to take advantage of the same loophole.

    In addition to the GPS issue, the ramifications of the FCC’s favoritism to Falcone and LightSquared are enormous. Consider other competitive nationwide mobile providers. Take Clearwire, for example. They purchased terrestrial spectrum at auction for substantial sums, and they have invested millions more to build out their 4G network. And now, thanks to the FCC, their competitor LightSquared is given the same terestrial spectrum for free, and is essentially exempt from requirements to invest and build out a competing network. The message to companies like Clearwire is clear: Companies who play by the rules, create jobs, and invest in building out competing networks are now at risk of seeing their plans entirely upended by the FCC’s arbitrary “unique” circumstances in favor of a competitor who developed the right political influence and who made the right political financial contributions.

    Federal agencies have a special responsibility to not only avoid conflicts of interest, but to avoid even the appearance of conflicts. No fair-minded person could look at the record so far and not believe that intervention and investigation are not warranted.

  4. Stephen Mann Says:

    Unfortunately, the letter of the law is on the side of LightSquared. The problem with interference (desense, actually) comes from the fact that almost no GPS receivers have any selectivity designed into their receivers. As LightSquared points out, the cost would only be a few cents per unit, but the filtering has to be designed into the product. It can’t be retrofitted.

    Ham radio operators had the same problem since the 1950′s up until the Digital TV changeover. Specifically, TV receivers did not have the necessary filters in their antenna circuit that would reject adjacent-channel interference. It would only cost the manufacturers a few cents per unit, but it was not needed by most users, so it wasn’t installed. Hams could not use the six-meter radio band if there was a Channel-2 transmitter in town. The interference was intolerable. (But fixable as most TV manufacturers would send the hams free filters that they could install on the offended TV set). Adjacent-channel interference was also the reason that in the early days of TV, there was never two adjacent-channel stations in the same geographical region.

    LightSuared as well as the Ham operators of last Century are following the rules for keeping their signals within their legally assigned band plan.

    I am not in any way defending the decision to license any terrestrial transmitters in the frequency band adjacent to the GPS spectrum, but just pointing out that LightSquared is playing the cards they were dealt. The original user of GPS was the military, where cost is not an issue. The GPS receivers used by the military are very well shielded from adjacent-channel desense problems and LightSquared towers probably wouldn’t cause them problems. The FCC only regulates transmitters – not receivers, and there’s millions of poorly designed receivers in the wild in cars, trucks, cell phones and aircraft. It’s for this reason that this is going to require a political resolution. Most likely in directing the FCC to put the spectrum adjacent to the GPS channels off-limits for terrestrial transmitters and in compensating LightSquared for the cost of re-engineering their system in another part of the RF spectrum.

  5. Captain (ret.) Curs Says:

    The FCC has no clue the terrible death and destruction they are potentially causing to get donations towards
    Mr. Obama’s re-election. It has to be that … or they’d come to their senses. This is serious.

  6. Randy Says:

    This is what happens when the commission consists of politically appointed representatives. The commission needs to have more technically oriented people who actually comprehend how electronic devices work. Most of these people have no business regulating something they have no experience in. It is indeed suspicious how fast this Lightsquared deal has been pushed through without due diligence. Maybe the name should be changed to the Federal Crooked Commission.

  7. Stephen Brann Says:

    The seeming improprieties apparent here cry out for for an immediate Congressional investigation before the damage is done. Absent of this, Congress is derelict in its duty to provide oversight of the executive branch (i.e., the FCC). Is the United States system of government so broken that this can’t/won’t happen?

  8. Steve Egolf Says:

    Throughout this debacle I have been wondering is LightSquared was within the power limits that are allowed to spill out of it’s FCC granted band and if the GPS manufacturers just took a shortcut and decided to save a few cents because “the FCC won’t allow anyone to use the adjacent band for anything other than satellite anyway”. Now they’ve been caught with their pants down and the only way AOPA and other organizations can fight it is with fear, hype and conspiracy theory. I hoped for better from AOPA. Obviously the GPS manufacturers want this thing shut down so they don’t have to spend money to re-design and retrofit, even though this is a problem caused by design practices. About the only part of this thing that I can see AOPA having correct is the effect the LightSquared transmissions will have. I have to wonder if AOPA and the other organizations had just gone to the FCC with facts and realities that this thing wouldn’t be so contentious now and would be running along a lot more smoothly. As Stephen Mann pointed out, if the out-of-band power that LightSquared emits is within limits then they have the legal upper hand. The only thing that is on GPSs side is that large already installed base and the costs to retrofit or cease operations. Fear and hype aren’t needed here. Facts and common sense are.

  9. Jack Says:

    Lets remember, come election time, all that Obama is doing that he should not be doing and all that he is not doing that should be doing.

  10. Mike Schrock Says:

    In Stephen Mann’s example of the problem of six-meter ham radio interference with Channel-2 TV reception, the ham operator was ultimately responsible to eliminate any interference, not the TV owner. Indeed, the FCC regulated the transmitters, and if they interfered they had to stop. The FCC actively investigated interference complaints from TV owners and enforced non-interference rules.

    In this case, a possible solution would be to protect the spectrum adjacent to the GPS band – for now – to protect existing equipment from interference. But then, define a reasonable lifetime of current GPS equipment and tell manufactures that the adjacent spectrum will only be protected for that period. Then, going forward, any new designs can incorporate the necessary filtering if they expect their product to be viable beyond the deadline, and if they don’t, caveat emptor.

  11. David Says:

    There is no question that the FCC granted Lightsquared the waiver. What remains to be seen is why the FCC granted the waiver. I will bet any amount of money that once the Congressional Hearing is under way we will all know the facts. I will also predict laws were broken in the process of granting the waiver. It’s going to be a very interesting battle.

  12. Terry Welander Says:

    Backups for GPS include and are not limited to: DME, VOR, ILS, Localizer, NDB, inertial guidance, VLF, and some others I am not thinking of. So where is the safety problem? There is none. Lazy fools refuse to talk about or use their back up navigation systems for GPS. To make it look even worse, portable units are available for most if not all of the back up navigation systems. There simply is not a safety issue. This beat up on the new guy will hurt these GPS interference winers in a big way for not recognizing the huge benefits of the proposed LightSquared system. Mr. Mann has it pegged exactly right comparing the 1950s television channel 2 interference with ham operators who needed to install filters on 1950s televisions to eliminate channel 2 interference. LightSquared has 20 million customers with the capability of going to 100 million or more with the system they have planned; which will help bring down navigation and communication costs in a big way; and bring more reliability to both navigation and communication. So tell all the GPS signal interference winers, get real, look at the big picture; and find a portable back up navigation device to satisfy yourself. The rest of us want lower costs and higher reliability. The current GPS system is the antithesis or contradiction of lower costs and higher reliability; and aggravates the hell out of more than a few of us.

  13. Don Says:

    Mr. Egolf,

    The problem is decidedly NOT LightSquared’s out of band emissions. It is their primary carrier causing receiver desense. GPS receivers were not underdesigned. They have more than met all of the regulatory and customer requirements as they existed at the time the products were introduced, and were typically state of the art or beyond. This is a systems interoperability issue that requires system level engineering acumen to assure an acceptable outcome. Clearly the trail leads back to the approving authority and their motivations, and to an entity hellbent to protect their extensive investment in a dubious endeavor.

  14. WT Wall Says:

    To those who are blaming receiver manufacturers (and AOPA) for fear mongering: all tests have shown that LightSquared signals DO block reception of GPS signals for 20 miles around the LightSquared transmitter, including some military ones, and the reason is not only the lack of filters in GPS receivers. To see why, go back to the post about ham radio interference. The reason that those cheap filters were able to work on TV sets was (1) the frequency band is relatively low compared to those used by GPS and LightSquared so you can build effective filters cheaper, but more importantly (2) TV stations transmit with tens of thousands of watts of power and are relatively close to the TV receivers. So even if a ham radio transmitting only a few hundred watts were nearby, the relative received power of the interference vs the TV signal was not so great that it couldn’t (usually) be filtered out (but not always). In the case of GPS, we’re talking about trying to receive a signal from a 45 watt satellite transmitter 20,200 km away when straight overhead (farther when near the horizon, and in the case of WAAS in geosynchronous orbit 35,780km away), having to travel through the ionosphere to get to earth surface, while next to a 1500 watt LightSquared transmitter on an adjacent frequency. The received power of a GPS signal is -125dBm to -130dBm outdoors under open sky, or on the order of 0.1 femto-watt (that’s 10^-16)! No “cheap filter” is ever going to be able to work. It’s a received signal strength difference of well over 1,000,000 to 1 even at 20 miles!

    More expensive high-attenuation filters have high noise levels, and cross-modulation from adjacent frequencies can corrupt the GPS signal itself. Add to that that the background white noise in this band is on the order of -110dBm – stronger than the GPS signal! It’s only because of some clever modulation tricks that we are able to recover the GPS signal at all!! Even when “expensive” filters are installed, at the very least, these adjacent signals are going to cause havoc with receiver automatic gain contol (AGC) circuitry and increase noise, reducing receiver sensitivity to levels where they cannot reliably detect satellite signals. (Remember, a GPS satellite is moving: it’s frequency shifts as it travels overhead due to Doppler effects. So the receiver has to track each satellite signal’s frequency shift while it’s in view as well as decode the signal content. It uses the Doppler frequency shift to help determine signal delay and in position calculation.) I should also point out that high-precision GPS receivers are, by design, wide band, to be able to receive input from multiple GPS and augmentation signal frequencies without separate RF front ends for each.

    In this month’s Institute of Navigation (IoN) Inside GNSS magazine, Charles Rhodes (who consulted with the FCC on digital TV interference issues) warns that so far tests have only shown effects from first order interference due to the overwhelming power of LightSquared transmitters in proximity to GPS receivers on nearby frequencies. He has done experiments that show that 3rd order and even 5th order “beat” harmonics from the full LightSquared deployment on all bands allocated to them (not just their initial “Phase zero” setup on one 5MHz frequency band) will cause direct interference within the GPS bands over a wide area around LightSquared transmitters. No filter is going to be able to stop that.

    By the way, the only thing “innovative” about this whole design is that spectrum that was set aside as being for satellite use — specifically because certain frequencies are best suited to this purpose, as well as to maintain enough radio quiet so that signals could be received from space — has been re-purposed with 40,000 “ground stations” that have nothing to do with satellite transmission. It’s a lawyer/bureaucratic trick that ignores the reality of physics. In the past, the FCC always prohibiterd terrestrial transmitters in the mobile satellite band, and receivers didn’t need expensive filters that would increase the noise signature. So those receiver manufacturers had good reason to believe that no one would ever be stupid enough to allow such an idiotic thing as LightSquared to be approved.

    P.S. – I am a private citizen, with no ties to any GPS manufacturer or aerospace contractor. I have no financial interest in the outcome of this issue. Just my life, when GPS dies while on a final approach or trying to vector around unseen traffic.

  15. Craig Says:

    Where in the world did Terry Welander come up with Light Squared’s purported 20 million customers? They have no terrestrial network and only a few token satellite customers. Is this disinformation or lack of knowledge? Light Squared is transparently a simple attempt to create short term gain at the expensive of literally hundreds of millions of existing users of the GPS system. There is no public good that can come from disabling the most important and efficient navigation tool so far created in human history. The rest of the world has adopted GPS as the de facto standard for all modes of transportation. The potential for death and property destruction as a result of unexpected interference is quite extraordinary. Since there is no practical solution to retrofitting hundreds of millions of GPS receivers already in use, one can only wonder on whose conscience will weigh the inevitable personal harm that will come from misguiding everything from emergency vehicles, commercial vehicles from trucks to ships and airliners – not even to speak of ordinary citizens in their daily lives who may be delayed or suffer harm as a result?

  16. Chuckl Says:

    Just one more example of what a completely useless federal agency the F.C.C. has become.The F.C.C. is composed of political “hacks” and friends of whatever administration is in power at the time. Since the 1950′s have become less technical and more reliant on data supplied by whatever company wants to buy or control spectrum. They have little interest in what the current applicant’s proposal will do legacy or adjacent spectrum users, preferring to wait until “problems” work their way through the courts. Unfortunately, in the case of GPS, these court cases may well involve deaths from skewed GPS signals.

  17. Don R. Bush Says:

    Does anyone besides me remember Obozo’s campaige promise? I quote, “In my administration, science will not take a backseat to politics.” Just another whopper from the whopper-in-chief.

  18. Kim Elmore Says:

    A similar thing occurred with the ham radio operators with something called broadband over Power Lines, or BPL, under the previous administration. The idea was that power lines would be used as common carriers for broadband signals in the 1-30 MHz range. It proved an unmitigated disaster for hams and we screamed bloody murder. It turns out that, because of the poor design, the system was also very vulnerable to interference form ham transmissions. From the very beginning, the FCC technical staff saw all of this coming, but the administrative/regulatory side chose to ignore physics because they were wooed by industry’s promise of untold business opportunities, job creation, and broadband access to the masses, even though the business model was seriously flawed and the entire system was technically intractable.

    In the end, the ARRL, an organization with much less clout than AOPA and the GPS manufacturers and users, got BPL stopped. We need to do the same thing with LightSquared and be certain to drive a stake of holly in its hert so that it can never be resurrected!

  19. Jim Says:

    Frequently comments are made about retrofitting filters in existing GPS receivers and designing filters into new receivers. Here is where the laws of physics are being ignored. For small receivers, there are only a few technologies available for filter designers that can be used. They include ceramic, surface acoustic wave (SAW), bulk acoustic wave (BAW) and coupled cavity filters. All of these are used in various combinations in existing receiver designs. Ceramic, SAW and BAW filters can be very small and are most suitable for GPS applications. Coupled cavity filters can offer greater rejection, but the extreme rejection that would be required to accommodate Lightsquared would require filters of a physical size that would literally be big as a breadbox, if indeed they are possible at all. Imagine adding a filter that large to your Garmin Nuvi or your iPhone. It just is not a valid concept. Filter technologies are graded by a quality factor ( labeled Q) which roughly speaking is a measure of rejection relative to loss. In general, higher Q requires a larger filter structure. This is where the physics comes in. Until someone invents some completely new technology that offers much higher Q in much smaller packages, there will be no viable solution to deal with the Lightsquared interference problem.

    I am also a private citizen with no connection to Lightsquared, or any GPS manufacturer. I have been a radio designer for nearly 30 years.

  20. Kim Elmore Says:

    Mr. Welander: As for backups: VORs are scheduled to be decommissioned. LORAN is gone as is OMEGA. Inertial nav? Oh puh-leeze! You have INS on your 182, do you? GPS is more accurate and reliable than its DME, ILS and localizers. While ILS and localizers won;t dieappear any time soo, they are rapidly headed the way of the dodo because GPS is so much more accurate. At some point, there will be nothing but GPS available. LightScrewed has done a reprehensible job of engineering.

    LightScrewed should never have been given even taxi clearance…

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