October 31, 2011

For months, an industry coalition has raised alarm over the potential costs to the industry (financial and otherwise) of disruption to Global Positioning System (GPS) service from interference produced by signals from telecommunications provider LightSquared. Now, the coalition has stepped forward to project the cost to government if LightSquared is allowed to force its broadband signal onto frequencies used by global positioning system receivers.

The Coalition to Save Our GPS, of which NBAA is a member, has produced a white paper estimating the potential impact to government agencies at $250 billion.

“A compilation of the limited number of publicly available statements and estimates concerning the costs the federal government would face…show that the federal government has invested at least $47 billion in GPS infrastructure and devices; that an estimated $160 billion in public safety, efficiency and socioeconomic benefits would be at risk if LightSquared is allowed to proceed; and that costs incurred for GPS device and infrastructure replacement, as well as increased costs because of efficiency losses, could be $38 billion,” the group stated in an October 27 release.

“[W]e believe this snapshot helps vividly illustrate how widespread and engrained the use of GPS, particularly high-precision GPS, is in the federal government, and lends insight into how disruptive any replacement or retrofitting process would be.”

The release – which further breaks down the projected costs to several federal agencies (but not all, the group notes) should the nationwide GPS network be compromised, or forced to retrofit GPS receivers – comes as the date draws closer for an expected ruling from the Federal Communications Commission on whether to allow the nascent company to begin full-scale deployment of a national 4G wireless communications grid. That decision is expected by November 30.

LightSquared immediately moved to counter the Coalition statements. Jeffrey Carlisle, the company’s Executive VP for Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy, asserted in a separate release that three LightSquared partner companies have found “inexpensive” solutions to the interference problem. The effectiveness of those work-arounds, which would involve retrofitting new antennas to the millions of GPS receivers now in use, has not been verified.

As NBAA has reported, GPS is used by virtually all business aircraft operators to improve situational awareness, navigate within the national airspace system, and conduct instrument approaches to many general aviation airports. Today, more than 60% of the 11,000 business aircraft operating in the U.S. are equipped with various GPS capabilities required for instrument approaches at over 5000 airports. Even more have en route GPS capability.

FAA Official Fears Issue’s Affect on NextGen

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials are also concerned with the impact LightSquared’s signal would have on its push towards an advanced air traffic control system.

In comments before the Air Traffic Control Association’s annual meeting in October, FAA Deputy Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety John Hickey termed the GPS issue “the most intractable problem I have been involved with in 31 years in aviation,” as reported by Flight International magazine. “If we have in any way a compromise to the [GPS] system,” Hickey added, “we compromise the future of NextGen.”