rural community leaders have presented letters to the FCC in support of the company’s plan.

Carlisle also branded the FAA report supporting the GPS industry a dirty political maneuver. “The report itself was completely inaccurate. They didn’t just say it would cause interference, they said we would completely knock out GPS for 10 years. Nobody is talking about knocking out GPS for one second,” Carlisle said. “They absolutely refuse to acknowledge the fact that high-precision GPS receivers are stationary. We know where they are. Many of them are near airports and we have to restrict our signal near airports anyway. There needs to be a certain amount of reality injected here.”

In fear of LightSquared’s broadcasts, hundreds of companies and groups from the GPS industry have united to create the Coalition to Save Our GPS. Jim Kirkland, vice president of Trimble, a maker of GPS products and founding member of the coalition, said the controversy with LightSquared comes down to a matter of intentions.

LightSquared’s original intent, as authorized by the FCC in 2002, was to offer limited-purpose, ancillary satellite fill-in for terrestrial service, Kirkland said. “This sat around in dormancy for eight years, and now they blame us based on a fill-in authorization and zero activity in eight years,” he said. “All the people talking now about what the FCC did weren’t even around in 2002.”

LightSquared’s chunk of spectrum is valued at roughly $12 billion, but because of the way it was acquired, the company paid only a small fraction of that cost to acquire it, Kirkland said. “No one knew that they were going to do this. You’re telling me that AT&T or Verizon wouldn’t have bought them out?”

As for the claims that the GPS industry is being uncooperative, Kirkland said that’s an exaggeration — and it’s beside the point, because GPS was here first.

“The GPS industry has worked with LightSquared all along,” he said. “Trimble, my company, has two to three engineers working full time trying to find a solution to this problem.”

Who Uses High-Precision GPS?

One of the most outspoken opponents of LightSquared is in agriculture. John Deere sells high-precision GPS systems to farmers who want increased efficiency and accuracy from their equipment. Using a tripod base station, tractors, combines and sprayers can stay within 2.5 cm of their routes. But the receivers won’t work with LightSquared’s current broadcast settings.

GPS is also used in public safety to monitor earthquake and hurricane data. Because high-precision GPS can measure within centimeters, rather than meters, it can give researchers a more informative data set. In 2008, a team of researchers at Purdue University used GPS to predict the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

High-precision GPS is essential in surveying and construction, and many of the GPS tools used by surveyors would become useless without wide-band capability.

But LightSquared, he said, is the newcomer. “If someone came up to you and said, ‘Give me all your money,’ does that make you uncooperative if you say ‘No’? We want to make this work,” Kirkland said, “but you’re not going to gamble on E911 calls and hurricane prediction.”

A ground network that reaches 260 million Americans by the end of 2015 is LightSquared’s plan largely because the FCC stipulated that figure — but it’s good news for rural areas that have trouble getting broadband Internet access. Akshay Sharma, mobile infrastructure research director at Gartner, said in some ways LightSquared’s plan could end up doing what Obama’s old high-speed Internet plan was supposed to do.

“That turned out to be more of a jobs act; wireless is probably a better approach for rural America,” he said. “For these wide swaths of land, you can’t reach everywhere with fiber. LightSquared could even turn a lemon into lemonade.”

With Sprint shutting down the Nextel push-to-talk network, LightSquared is in a unique position to provide that functionality with its satellite coverage, Sharma added. And in fact, LightSquared announced in July its intention to provide push-to-talk functionality, emphasizing the benefits to public safety.

Public interest groups are paying attention to LightSquared because the company could help reverse growing vertical integration in the telecommunications industry. LightSquared plans to sell service wholesale to wireless retailers, which analysts say will give any company a chance to compete with the big boys. Deals with Best Buy, Leap Wireless, Cellular South, Net Talk, South Illinois Wireless, Powernet Global and Open Range have been announced.

Michael Calabrese, a senior research fellow at the New American Foundation, is among the public interest group representatives who have presented the FCC with letters supporting LightSquared. “It’s appalling because essentially the GPS industry has decided that they’re just going to take an absolutist position,” he said. “They’re going to take the spectrum for their own use, they’re not going to give it up, and they’re not going to bear any of the responsibility. The GPS people haven’t done anything since 2003, and from a standing start, now it’ll take time and money.”

The FCC has resolved similar issues before, like when Sprint was forced to rearrange the 800 MHz band so as not to interfere with public safety utilities.

“In that case, the FCC’s order sternly stated that certain parties are trying to attribute blame, but no one was to blame. It’s just crowded. These boundary issues are coming up more and more often. There’s only so much beachfront spectrum,” Calabrese said. “I think the FCC’s motivated to try to find a path for the two industries to coexist.”

A likely solution, he said, includes a multipart plan where the most important GPS infrastructure is fixed immediately to eliminate interference issues, and old GPS receivers are phased out over several years. The costs, he added, would likely be divided between GPS and LightSquared.

With the telecom industry trending toward a duopoly dominated by Verizon and AT&T, Calabrese said the FCC should not only allow LightSquared into the market, the agency also should encourage everyone to find technical solutions that allow LightSquared to use its entire spectrum. “The L band is a big chunk of a dwindling supply,” he said, “we can’t really afford to be throwing it away on a guard band.”

LightSquared’s plan also would allow for more innovation in the technology industry, Calabrese said. When Apple released the iPhone, it was forced to partner with a carrier because there are no wireless wholesalers. If LightSquared had been around, Apple or even a much smaller company could have released its device and provided its own service plans, leased through LightSquared.

The deal with Sprint, Calabrese said, was a good move. “That makes us much more hopeful about this. The fact that LightSquared could piggyback on Sprint’s infrastructure means it’s much more likely LightSquared can do this,” he said, adding that it’s also good for Sprint because it makes it likelier that Sprint can survive the impending duopoly. “I think Sprint has in mind becoming an infrastructure co-op. They might invite other carriers to bring spectrum to their towers.”

It’s crunch time for LightSquared. If the company wants to begin testing its network next year, as planned, it will need to find a comprehensive solution to its interference problems. Michael Marcus, a wireless technology expert who worked for the FCC for 25 years, said LightSquared won’t survive if it can’t ace the next round of testing. “The day LightSquared turns on,” he said, “there had better not be interference to most, if not all, GPS units.”

The FCC is unequipped to handle this sort of testing, so the agency has left it to GPS and LightSquared to do the testing and return to the FCC with results, Marcus said. “They all hold hands and cooperate, but when you read the paper, you can see some friction going on.” But it won’t matter who is at fault if the interference problems aren’t fixed, he said, because ultimately, GPS is too important to worry about playing the blame game.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com