LightSquared accuses GPS industry of rigging the evidence

Updated. LightSquared isn’t giving up its quest to build a nationwide LTE network despite the odds continuing to stack against it. On Wednesday, LightSquared accused the commercial GPS industry of “rigging” government tests on the potential GPS interference problems of its network and called on the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to hire an independent lab to conduct a new round of testing.
Last week, the government agency overseeing the national GPS satellite network, the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Executive Committee, or PNT-ExComm, reached the damning conclusion that there is no network LightSquared could build without overwhelming the signals millions of GPS navigation and timing devices depend on. To break ground on its LTE network, LightSquared needs a final okay from the FCC, but its approval is conditional upon LightSquared proving its high-powered LTE network doesn’t interfere with devices using the neighboring low-powered GPS band.
LightSquared EVP of Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy Jeff Carlisle said the burden of proof the commercial GPS industry wants LightSquared to meet is not only insurmountable, but was in fact established to ensure the committee would reach a foregone conclusion. Carlisle said PNT-ExComm invited commercial GPS device makers to formulate and conduct the tests in its study, which still hasn’t been released to the public. That “biased and co-opted” process practically guaranteed the results would be skewed against LightSquared, Carlisle said.
“The testing just doesn’t reflect reality and it was probably never intended to,” Carlisle said. He pointed to what LightSquared believes are three specific flaws in PNT-ExComm’s test process:

  • GPS device manufacturers – LightSquared wouldn’t name specific vendors – brought antiquated and pre-commercial devices to the tests, with the intention of producing more negative results. “The initial test parameters were chosen for failure,” said Ed Thomas, a former FCC chief engineer who now works as a consultant for LightSquared.
  • The testing methodology is set at the most miniscule and unreasonable measure of what constitutes interference. LightSquared has said in the past that a single-decibel change is the lowest level of interference a typical GPS receiver can detect, but it doesn’t affect the performance of devices.
  • Carlisle said the whole process was “shrouded in secrecy” to hide PNT-ExComm’s flawed methodology. At one point, the testing was delayed, Carlisle said, so GPS vendors could switch out the device set to gain results more favorable to its industry.

The would-be carrier is basically accusing GPS vendors of falsifying data in a government study. Those are serious charges. Though Carlisle and Thomas didn’t name any specific vendors in its call, in a follow-up email, a LightSquared spokesman said both Garmin (s GRMN) and Trimble Navigation (s TRMB) submitted their devices and were on-site during the tests. The Coalition to Save our GPS, which represents GPS manufacturers in this fight, hasn’t responded yet, but it will almost certainly put out a statement in the next few hours. We’ll update the post when that happens.
Update: As you would imagine, the Save Our GPS Coalition isn’t too happy with LightSquared’s accusations against its founding members Garmin and Trimble. Trimble vice president and general counsel Jim Kirkland lashed back at LightSquared with the following statement:

At each and every turn in this process, whenever LightSquared does not like a test result or ruling, it either seeks to change the parameters or cries foul – and frequently both. Today’s LightSquared statement is more of the same. A year ago, the FCC’s International Bureau provided a conditional waiver to LightSquared, and that condition was a categorical requirement that it prove its plans would not interfere with GPS.  LightSquared assured one and all that its plans would not cause interference with GPS. But test after test has shown that LightSquared’s ill-conceived plans do in fact cause widespread interference with GPS.

“LightSquared does not like the test results, so it is attacking the testers. Last Friday’s report reflects the unanimous view of nine different federal government departments and agencies that LightSquared’s proposals would interfere with critical functions, including the Department of Defense, the FAA and the Department of Homeland Security. The technical evidence speaks for itself and no individual, company or government body can legitimately be blamed for the clear defects of LightSquared’s ill-conceived proposal or the failure of that proposal to pass an extensive, fact-based review process.”

As for next steps, LightSquared is asking the NTIA to re-evaluate ExComm’s test results in light of these accusations and to conduct its next round of testing on high-precision GPS receivers through an independent lab with no affiliation to and no direct participation from the commercial GPS industry. Such tests would take several months to devise and perform, and LightSquared may be running out of time. During the call, LightSquared claimed it had funds to keep on fighting for several quarters, but in recent financial statement obtained by Reuters, (s tri) LightSquared said it would run out of cash at the beginning of the second quarter.
Update: The FCC is steering clear of this potential fire keg. In an email, FCC spokesperson Tammy Sun made this comment:

We are awaiting completion of recommendations from NTIA. As we have said from the outset, the FCC will not lift the prohibition on LightSquared to begin commercial operations unless harmful interference issues are resolved.