Dell's Original Uncoverage Logo by Antonio F. Branco, Comically Incorrect

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Obama Supported ‘Lightsquare’ Could Render GPS Worthless

Obama Supported ‘Lightsquared’ Could Render GPS Worthless

The potential for conflict has spawned a bare-knuckled brawl between Lightsquared and the GPS community, and led to a battery of tests aimed at determining the exact levels of interference, and strategies for mitigating any negative effects.

By Dell Hill

GPS is one of the most recognizable acronyms in the world today...and with good reason.  The “Ground Positioning System” technology has taken a startling rise in popularity, to the point where GPS systems are now standard equipment in many automobiles, cell phones and there are even wrist-watch style devices for hunters and hikers.  About 99.9% of the time, a GPS unit of decent quality can pinpoint a location anywhere on Earth to within a couple of feet!

So why on Earth would anyone want to produce something that might destroy that satellite based technology for millions of people?

That’s where LightSquared comes in...and we’ll pick up this report from Wired.

MENLO PARK, California — The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is situated just off Sand Hill Road, nestled in an expansive tract of verdant lawns and trees two miles west of the university’s main campus.
About 150 of the world’s best GPS engineers have gathered here this week, and the subject is war.

At stake are the delicate satellite signals that power the $110 billion GPS market for military and commercial aviation navigation systems, automated agricultural machines and consumer mapping services in cars, to name a few.

The enemies threatening the future of the GPS are many:

  • Next-generation mobile broadband services angling for a piece of the electromagnetic spectrum relied on by GPS;
  • Cheap GPS jammers flooding the highways, thanks to consumers worried about invasive police and employer surveillance;
  • Cosmic events, like solar storms;
  • Future location technology that will ultimately push those services to places where GPS simply cannot go

“The results will be immediate and disastrous,” kicks off Stanford engineering professor Brad Parkinson, widely known as the father of GPS, while introducing the fifth annual Stanford University symposium on Position, Navigation and Time on Thursday.

Dr. Brad Parkinson. Image courtesy Stanford University

Parkinson isn’t just presenting; he’s holding court. The renowned GPS pioneer and former combat airman is on a first-name basis with generals, and has taught the finer points of satellite location for decades. The audience contains a conspicuous number of his former students who have come from around the world to pay homage — many of them now among the world’s GPS elite. Throughout the day, he’ll interrupt speakers with questions from the floor, and each time be received with warm and universal deference.

Right now, though, he is hammering the FCC, and its tepid response to an influential rising mobile broadband player, Lightsquared, that may be threatening the integrity of GPS signals.

Lightsquared has been endorsed by the Obama administration as a potential silver bullet to the nation’s broadband woes, offering cable-like bandwidth to mobile customers across the country through next generation wireless service known as LTE.  It all sounds promising, but there is at least one visible problem: It would sit in the very spectrum that runs the GPS system, which is by design low-power and thus easily subject to interference.

Although the Iridium low orbit satellite network is not high precision, its signals are powerful enough to penetrate buildings, mountainous terrain and dense urban environments where GPS flat out doesn’t work. It’s a feat that few have achieved in the location space.

The potential for conflict has spawned a bare-knuckled brawl between Lightsquared and the GPS community, and led to a battery of tests aimed at determining the exact levels of interference, and strategies for mitigating any negative effects.

Last week, Lightsquared unveiled a set of test results, and declared major progress in addressing interference concerns.

“The GPS interference issue can be solved and is not — as the GPS industry has led the public to believe — an unsolvable physics problem,”

Lightsquared’s Martin Harrimansaid wrote in a statement on Nov. 9. “The entire debate has turned from whether there is a solution to who pays for it. And that’s a conversation we’re willing to have.”

On Thursday, Parkinson roundly challenged those conclusions, arguing that the tests strongly indicate Lightsquared will drown out GPS at low levels. Furthermore, he said, Lightsquared is looking to increase the strength of its signal, with the apparent blessing of the FCC, from 1.5 kW to 15 kW and no tests have yet been conducted at those higher levels.

“15 kW is a very powerful L band signal,” he said. “It’s not something a man particularly wants to stand next to, if he wants to have children at some time in the future. (Laughter)”

“I’m not kidding. That’s comparable to microwave ovens.”

In this partisan crowd of GPS true believers, Parkinson is far from alone.

The audience jokes all day about Lightsquared, and the FAA’s Deane Bunce later takes the floor with a concurring presentation, suggesting tests to date show significant interference, and little promise for suggested fixes — for example, filtering.

Parkinson and his former student Todd Walter, one of the key designers of the so-called Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) used to enhance GPS for aviation navigation, also reserve some choice words for a more anarchic technological threat: Consumer GPS jammers. Sold online for around $50, the jammers have already been linked to a GPS failure at Newark International Airport thanks to a passing driver with a GPS jamming system installed in his vehicle.

Drivers are buying the devices — which are illegal — in response to privacy concerns over GPS tracking. Walter points to a recent Supreme Court case weighing in on the legality of police use of unwarranted GPS trackers in surveillance operations as a potential incentive for consumer jammer usage that could create havoc for GPS-dependent navigation systems near airports.”

The science - and associated battles - are bound to continue for years to come.  However, with full support from the top (President Barack Obama) there’s no question what the outcome will be, no matter how convincing the arguments against.

The very device many of you depend on to keep from getting lost may soon be headed for the scrap heap, right along side your analog TV and Royal typewriter.

No comments:

Post a Comment