June 20, 2011

Mounting concerns over interference to Global Positioning System (GPS) signals from broadband communications towers have reached the global stage. In a June 13 letter to U.S. officials, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) expressed the group’s “grave concern” over the conditional waiver provided by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to wireless provider LightSquared.

The FCC granted that waiver in January 2011, allowing LightSquared to develop the technology and test components for its proposed wireless broadband communications network over areas of the southwestern United States. As NBAA has reported extensively, those tests – as well as independent studies by electronics manufacturers and organizations – have revealed the potential for severe interference with signals from GPS satellites.

‘An Issue of Grave Concern’

ICAO says that represents “an issue of grave concern to the international civil aviation community… The safety and efficiency of aviation operations today are already, to a substantial extent, reliant on the invaluable position, navigation and timing service provided by GPS,” reads the letter, signed by ICAO Council President Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez and Secretary General Raymond Benjamin. “Ongoing aviation developments, such as those being undertaken in the framework of United States NextGen programme and the European SESAR programme, will place even more emphasis on the central role of GPS and other satellite navigation systems in aviation operations.

“Therefore, the potential disruption to aviation use of GPS caused by the LightSquared system would have a far-reaching impact on current and future aviation operations,” ICAO warns. “The international aircraft fleet flying into the United States would be directly affected and also similar developments could arise elsewhere and propagate the disruption beyond their borders.”

The ICAO pointedly notes the U.S. spearheaded the standardization of GPS service throughout the world. “We urge you to ensure that this vital commitment is not unintentionally jeopardized by the introduction of the LightSquared system and the ensuing impact on GPS use by aviation,” concludes the letter addressed to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt included in its distribution.

Congressional Action on the Issue

ICAO is not the only party that has recently raised concerns over the matter. Earlier this month, members of the U.S. Congress expressed similar alarm over the situation, with House lawmakers warning that the LightSquared program could have “devastating effects” on all users of GPS, including the military and emergency providers. In a separate letter, over 30 U.S. Senators requested the FCC pull its waiver for LightSquared, until the technology could be proven to safely coexist with GPS signals.

Members of the Congressional GA Caucus have also spearheaded an effort to add new language related to the issue to a bill under consideration by the House Appropriations Committee’s Agriculture Subcommittee. On July 16, the House passed its FY2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill, which includes acknowledgment of the potential threats posed to a technology used by many areas of the US Department of Agriculture, including forest firefighting and natural resource monitoring.

“The Committee is aware of a decision by the Federal Communications Commission that may disrupt the use of GPS, causing significant problems for USDA and our Nation’s farmers and ranchers,” the language in the appropriations bill states. “The Committee directs USDA [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] to ensure the FCC is aware of these concerns and to work with other Federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation, to address them.”

Final Report Delayed to July 1

LightSquared was scheduled to submit its final report on testing to the FCC on June 15, but the company has since been granted a two-week extension by the commission. In comments to media following news of the revised July 1 due date, LightSquared spokesperson Jim Carlisle described the process of compiling that report as “a massive undertaking.”

NBAA has been actively involved in efforts calling for LightSquared to demonstrate its systems are fully compatible with GPS. Earlier this year, the Association joined the Coalition to Save Our GPS, which counts over 200 members dedicated to maintaining the safety and integrity of the GPS network.

For additional information on this issue, contact NBAA’s Operations Service Group at info@nbaa.org.