It’s time for a hard look at federal spectrum policy
When I was a young man — which is to say many, many moons ago — I attempted to climb Mt. Rainier in Washington State, the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S. at 14,411 feet. I was working for a magazine in the outdoor sports sector at the time, and my publisher thought this would be a great way for me to gain some valuable hands-on knowledge. It sounded like a lot of fun.
As things turned out, the event caused me to completely redefine my definition of “fun.” It was a total disaster. Looking back on this sad chapter in my life, I now recognize that I should have picked up on a few clues. First, I live in the Midwest, which along with the Great Plains is the flattest place in the country. So I was completely naïve to the rigors of mountain climbing. That should have resonated with me. But I was at the peak of my physical powers then, playing basketball four nights a week for three to four hours at a crack. How much tougher could mountain climbing be? Well, I found out in a hurry.
Another clue presented itself when we arrived at the base of the mountain, which was at 5,000-foot elevation. It was June, and it was freezing — literally. The temperature was in the upper 20s. Being from the Midwest, I knew what to do. I layered up. It stood to reason: If it was in the upper 20s at 5,000 feet, it was going to be much colder than that at 10,000 feet, which is where the base camp was located, our destination for the first day. While I was preparing for this, several of our guides emerged from the supply house — dressed only in T-shirts and shorts. I thought they were screwing around, so I continued layering. But if I had been more insightful, I would have realized that they were dressed that way for a reason — which is that the body works so hard on a climb that one can overheat very quickly.
I learned this the hard way. Within 1,000 feet, I was perspiring profusely. I recognized what was happening, and started gulping huge handfuls of snow, but it already was too late. Soon I was severely dehydrated and suffering from cramps. I gutted it out to 8,000 feet, but then the climb’s leaders stopped me, fearing for my health and safety. So, I went back down the mountain with a group that had finished its climb — on my seat, literally, because I was too weak to stand. The worst part — yes, there’s a worse part to this — was that as the sweat cascaded down my face, it washed off all of my sunscreen. The sun’s rays are more damaging at such elevations because the air is thinner and the rays reflect off the snow pack and intensify. The result was severe sunburn and later a scab that covered my entire forehead.
There were many “lessons learned” from this debacle. The most important is that foresight is considerably more valuable than hindsight.
The event that unlocked this painful memory after so many years was last week’s ruling by the FCC that satellite services provider LightSquared will not be allowed to move forward with its plans to use its spectrum in the 1.5 GHz band for 4G terrestrial services that leverage Long-Term Evolution technology. That was after the NTIA advised that LightSquared’s operations would interfere with some GPS devices.
Previously, I have written that whatever the FCC does in this matter, it needs to protect GPS services, which are invaluable on many different levels. I still am of that mindset. But I can’t help sympathizing with LightSquared. As I understand things, part of the problem is that GPS receivers are hypersensitive in order to be able to hear the signals that weaken considerably over the more than 12,000 miles that they travel from the orbiting GPS satellites down to Earth. Because of this hypersensitivity, GPS receivers “listen” well into the adjacent 1.5 GHz band, which is actually what causes the interference to their operations. But the FCC only addresses interference caused by transmitters; there currently is no policy for receivers, which generally don’t cause interference.
Another factor is that the FCC allowed terrestrial operations in the 1.5 GHz band — which is adjacent to the band used by GPS operators — in its 2003 and 2005 Ancillary Terrestrial Component rulings. The commission did so to let satellite operators fill coverage gaps that existed in cities, because skyscrapers and other large edifices blocked satellite signals, which are dependent on line of sight. Because GPS signals suffer from the same issue, it did not cite potential interference problems regarding ATC operations. But now, because LightSquared is contemplating a nationwide deployment of its wholesale service, there is a real threat that the much stronger LTE signal will overwhelm the much weaker GPS signal in many places.
Should the FCC have anticipated these problems? It’s difficult to say. On one hand, it seems reasonable to think that the commission’s engineers should have been aware of the hypersensitivity of GPS receivers and what that would mean to LightSquared’s operations, and they certainly should have known that a terrestrial signal would wreak havoc on a satellite signal. Why then did the FCC in rule last year that LightSquared could build this LTE network, even with the condition that it did not interfere with GPS? Perhaps the necessary testing should have been done first, so that the agency could grant a firm decision — yes or no, with no conditions — about the LTE plans, before LightSquared and it investors poured billions of dollars into a cellular deployment that apparently never will happen.
On the other hand, I write this having clearly benefitted from hindsight. What was needed here was foresight, which historically has been proved to be a very elusive thing. Even when foresight is harnessed, it virtually is impossible to anticipate every outcome.
We will be exploring these questions, and a whole lot more, this week at IWCE 2012, during a session that will examine what currently is working regarding federal spectrum policy, what isn’t working and how to make things better. The session will be held tomorrow from 4:30 to 5:45 p.m. We have a great panel lined up and I am certain the debate will be as lively as it is informative. I urge you to join us.
Ed.: For a thorough examination of the LightSquared/GPS battle and its ramifications, see Senior Writer Donny Jackson’s cover story in the February print edition.
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