Today, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing to examine concerns and issues associated with interference on the Global Positioning System (GPS) signal from the proposed LightSquared LLC terrestrial broadband network related to Federal scientific activities.
In his opening remarks, Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) discussed the varied economic, practical and national security-related benefits of the GPS system, and all of the industries that depend on it. "Any potential disruption to GPS, and the science activities that it supports, is of utmost concern to this Committee," Hall said. "We have to find a way to open up more spectrum for broadband, but not at the expense of GPS."
"Ensuring that GPS is protected is a vital national interest. Its economic impact is clear, and its utility to science is unquestionable, but what is also important is the real impact on lives," Hall continued. "Last month the FAA announced that LightSquared's previous proposal would result in billions of dollars of investment lost, a decade of delays to ongoing projects, a cost impact of roughly $72 billion, and almost 800 additional fatalities -- and that is just one Administration."
LightSquared is seeking approval from regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to build a $14 billion broadband network using airwaves previously reserved for satellites. Recent testing has demonstrated the potential for interference that could disable the GPS signal used for critical U.S. Government services and science missions.
Discussing the importance of GPS to natural disaster prediction and response capabilities, Ms. Mary Glackin, Deputy Under Secretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that LightSquared's original spectrum plan would "cause serious performance degradation or a total loss of mission for a wide range of our operational systems, resulting in the loss of critical services and potential loss of life and property." Ms. Glackin continued, "Our entire fleet of meteorological satellites would be put at risk."
Similarly, Dr. David Applegate, Associate Director for Natural Hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said that "GPS is vitally important in acquiring virtually every type of spatially referenced data in use today." As one example, Dr. Applegate noted that fire crews use GPS for navigation, and that any degradation of the GPS signal "could make it more difficult for personnel to navigate" and that "they would have to revert to pencil-and-map." He said, "Miscommunication and delays also would be a life-safety risk for personnel and the public."
Mr. Anthony Russo, Director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing, which oversees U.S. agencies' interests in GPS services, said that extensive testing "conclusively demonstrates harmful interference from LightSquared's intended deployment of their high power terrestrial broadband system."
Since initial testing, LightSquared has modified its proposal, though its network will still be located in the same frequency band as their satellite service, which is adjacent to existing GPS spectrum. Regarding LightSquared's revised proposal, Mr. Russo bluntly said that "Further study is needed."
Echoing the necessity for further testing, Dr. Victor Sparrow, who directs spectrum policy and space communications at NASA, said that impacts to the agency's GPS-dependent systems "would be substantial." Sparrow also said it is clear to NASA that even with LighSquared's modified plan, GPS interference issues have not been satisfied.
Dr. Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, discussed the many ways that GPS has benefited the scientific community. However, Dr. Pace said that "If the LightSquared terrestrial network is allowed to operate as proposed, it will mark a permanent decline in the beneficial capabilities GPS has afforded scientific users in the United States." He continued, "It would create new, additional, and unforeseen, costs for federal science agencies as well as State and local governments who rely on high precision GPS-derived data."