GPS and the policy of scarce resources

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In the 1960s, David Easton defined politics as the authoritative allocation of scarce resources. One of the most scarce resources today is the radio frequency spectrum. Modern communication systems (television, radio, cell phones, WIFI) transmit and receive signals using an assigned part of this invisible domain. If two systems try to use the same “slice” of spectrum at the same time, interference and weak and inaccurate signals can result.

With the proliferation of high-speed wireless devices, the demand for radio spectrum has increased dramatically in recent years. The regulator of the field, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is sometimes forced to choose between competing claims and competing visions of the common good. And as a recent controversy surrounding a Virginia-based communications company illustrates, spectrum allocation can be a messy process and have implications for both national security and global economic infrastructure.

Fight for the specter

In 2010, LightSquared announced plans for a new national network for mobile broadband communications based on the new 4G standard. Its business model seemed to dovetail perfectly with President Obama’s June 2010 memo calling for “igniting the wireless broadband revolution” by making more spectrum available for wireless broadband use.

LightSquared’s technical solution was to erect nearly forty thousand towers across the country that would broadcast in a frequency band immediately adjacent to that used by the Global Positioning System (GPS). From the start, this raised concerns that strong private network transmissions would take over and degrade the much weaker GPS signals.

While acknowledging these concerns, the FCC granted the company a conditional waiver to continue its ground network in January 2011, while stipulating that the issue of potential interference with GPS had yet to be resolved.

After evaluating the test results of LightSquared and several government agencies (including the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and the Air Force, which develops, launches and operates GPS satellites), the FCC concluded the month last that the network proposed by LightSquared would indeed have a negative impact on GPS services. . In addition, he saw no practical way to mitigate potential interference in the short term. As a result, the FCC has signaled that it will not give final approval to build the network.

LightSquared claims to have already invested more than $ 4 billion in the project. The fallout from the FCC’s decision was almost immediate: the company’s CEO resigned. Employees have been made redundant. Sprint Nextel canceled a key contract. Published reports indicate that LightSquared may file for bankruptcy. And Republican lawmakers have requested to see documents and cost data associated with the FCC’s review of LightSquared’s original proposal.

A free global utility

As difficult as this latest news was for the company and its investors, as well as proponents of expanded mobile broadband access, approving the use of a system that threatened to interfere with GPS would have been a big deal. colossal blunder.

The GPS system itself consists of a minimum of twenty-four satellites orbiting twelve thousand miles above the Earth’s surface. Using on-board atomic clocks, they transmit a very precise time signal. By calculating the difference between the arrival times of signals from different satellites, observers with the right equipment can mathematically calculate their exact position and, if moving, their speed and heading.

The Air Force originally developed the system as a long-range navigation aid through oceans or flat terrain. It has proven to be so accurate and reliable that old forms of navigation, such as using a map and compass, or “shooting the stars” with a sextant, have largely fallen into disuse and have become. a lost art. The military has gradually applied the use of GPS to a wider range of operations. These include the development of very precise ‘smart bombs’ that can destroy targets more effectively while producing less collateral damage to surrounding areas, as well as steerable parachutes that can quickly and safely deliver supplies to troops in the area. remote areas of Afghanistan.

While GPS was originally developed for the military, the signal broadcast by GPS satellites can be picked up anywhere in the world, and it’s free. Engineers and contractors have therefore developed hundreds of civil and commercial applications that rely heavily on GPS signals. Virtually all new cars produced in America today are equipped with a GPS navigation system. Modern equipment for agriculture, surveying, seismic monitoring, transportation, navigation, emergency services, search and rescue, and disaster relief have all become dependent on GPS. The system will also serve as the basis for a much more efficient and secure global air traffic control system as old infrastructure is replaced.

Less well known are the myriad of other apps that take advantage of GPS’s precise time signal. Many communication systems, power grids and financial networks rely on GPS to synchronize their “time stamp” operations or transactions. ATMs, credit card purchases, and even the proper functioning of the Internet itself depend on GPS synchronization.

In other words, GPS has become an integral part of military, economic and societal infrastructures around the world. It is, indeed, a global utility for the information age. For this reason, serious interference with the GPS signal, whatever the cause, would significantly disrupt the normal course of daily life.

So far, GPS has been protected from a serious threat to its reliability and efficiency. But given the obvious risks, it’s worth wondering how the federal government and LightSquared got into this nasty situation in the first place.

Bureaucratic failure?

The publicly available documents leave the impression that a strong desire to implement high-level administrative guidelines, which demanded that more spectrum be available for broadband use, has led to reckless rush to judgment. of the FCC. Although its January 2011 decision was carefully cautioned, the FCC has given LightSquared the green light to continue, even as significant segments of the government and the GPS user community have urged caution.

While federal officials have a responsibility to implement the president’s policies, they also have an obligation to exercise their best judgment in doing so. Private companies, by their very nature, vigorously promote the potential of their products to meet perceived needs. But when it comes to private use of public property, claims must be subject to a rigorous analysis of the benefits and risks, including unintended consequences. It often takes time and patience – another increasingly scarce resource, it seems.

Frank Klotz is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, as well as the former Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and the former Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command.


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