Joint Subcommittee Hearing Focuses on Potential GPS Interference with Aviation and Marine Transportation Safety

Jun 23, 2011 Issues: Internet Policy, Transportation

The Subcommittee on Aviation, chaired by U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), and the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, chaired by U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), held an oversight hearing today to examine potential impacts on marine and aviation safety from pending LightSquared plans, subject to government approval, to build nationwide broadband internet infrastructure that may affect Global Positioning System (GPS) reliability.   

There are concerns in the aviation and marine transportation communities that the high-powered broadband signal proposed by LightSquared would overpower the GPS navigation functions that are relied upon by civil and military receivers for safety and navigation on the nation’s airways and waterways.  Preliminary government testing has validated some of these concerns, and today’s hearing explored the implications of these impacts on the operability of GPS systems, as well as job creation and safety within these two critical transportation communities. 

The panel received testimony from the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Coast Guard, and industry representatives.  Witnesses today verified that there is insufficient data to demonstrate that LightSquared’s planned nationwide broadband signal would not interfere with GPS signals, and the details would have to be thoroughly and independently tested before being safely implemented. 

The potential impact of LightSquared’s planned broadband signal on the air traffic control modernization effort known as Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) was especially emphasized, given its strong reliance on GPS.  Not only might safety be compromised, but according to today’s witnesses, 150,000 new aviation sector jobs that would be created by NextGen could be threatened by any interference with GPS. 

The following are the opening statements of Chairmen Petri and LoBiondo:

 

Chairman Petri:

“Today, we will explore LightSquared’s plans to build out terrestrial broadband internet service and its potential impacts on GPS users, safety, and NextGen.  Safety is a top priority of the Aviation Subcommittee.  Sadly, advancements in aviation safety have often come only after fatal accidents.  But, over the years, the FAA has shifted to a risk-based, data driven safety system in order to act proactively and prevent the loss of life.  The Subcommittee supports this proactive effort to identify and address safety issues before there is an accident.

“When a potential safety issue is brought to our attention, we must seek information and work with the community and FAA to ensure the risk is properly addressed. 

 “The Global Positioning System, or GPS, serves a critical role in aviation safety airspace modernization, known as NextGen.

“Aviation infrastructure--and efforts to update it with the DOT’s NextGen program--are a platform for growth in the U.S. economy and a key driver of economic activity.  NextGen is also a key component for job creation within the aviation industry. 

 “It is important the government does nothing to limit NextGen efforts, both in terms of impacting job creation and undermining or delaying important advancements in air traffic management.  New burdens on the aviation industry as a result of FCC approvals would likely stifle NextGen efforts, and the resulting economic growth and job creation.  As such, new and costly burdens on aviation users are simply unacceptable. 

 “Due to various concerns raised by GPS users, the LightSquared proposal we are considering at today’s hearing has been the subject of government and industry expert field testing and review.

“Analysis conducted by two independent technical teams show significant GPS interference would result if LightSquared were to roll out its terrestrial network as originally planned.  In fact, the government team, the National Space-Based PNT Systems Engineering Forum (NPEF), recommended that the FCC rescind the waiver which allows LightSquared to proceed in its plans to offer service in the spectrum neighboring GPS. 

“The government team further recommended that the FCC re-address the effects of the FCC’s authorizations for LightSquared service in the neighboring spectrum. 

“The government team said, “At the conclusion of this NPEF effort significant concerns remain that operation of an ancillary terrestrial component integrated service as originally envisioned by the FCC cannot successfully coexist with GPS.”

 “In the face of these results, LightSquared announced on Monday, June 20th, that they would revise their roll out plans to address GPS interference concerns.  However, that revised plan has not been subject to a full evaluation.  The RTCA, which is represented on our second panel of witnesses, also conducted testing of potential GPS interference. 

 “The RTCA’s initial testing reportedly showed a smaller portion of LightSquared’s spectrum allocation than they are currently contemplating for use would be suitable for assuredly safe operation. 

“I would like to hear the full details of LightSquared’s revised plan today so that the Subcommittees and appropriate GPS government and industry experts can evaluate the technical aspects of the plan.

“I spoke a moment ago about the importance of GPS for both the safety and efficiency of the national airspace system, as well as the importance of the national airspace system as a platform for job growth in the United States. 

 “Based on the testimony provided today to the Subcommittee regarding the potential negative impact of LightSquared’s presence within the L-Band spectrum neighboring GPS, and based on the importance of GPS, the subcommittee may request the FCC allow time for full comprehensive testing of the plans announced on Monday for potential harmful interference impacts. 

 “To be fair, LightSquared’s goal of providing more broadband internet capacity is not a bad one, as long as that in doing so, LightSquared’s plans do not interfere with aviation safety, job creation, or NextGen. 

 “In aviation, there’s no room for error.  The impacts of LightSquared’s revised plans should be independently and thoroughly tested to ensure the FCC does not approve plans that would introduce unacceptable risk into the aviation system, or leave aviation GPS users with new, costly burdens.

 “Finally, before I recognize Mr. Costello and the Chair and Ranking Member of the Coast Guard Subcommittee for their opening statements, I ask unanimous consent that all Members have five legislative days to revise and extend their remarks and include extraneous material for the record of this hearing.”

           

Chairman LoBiondo:

"As a member of the Aviation Subcommittee, I would like to echo Chairman Petri’s concerns on the effects of GPS interference on our aviation system as a whole.  As the Chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, I feel it is important that we also focus on the effects of GPS interference in the maritime realm.  As with aviation, the marine transportation system is highly dependent on GPS.  The vast majority of the 12 million recreational vessels, 30,000 fishing vessels, 40,000 commercial vessels, and 9,260 foreign vessels that call on U.S. ports rely on at least one, if not several, GPS based systems for navigation, collision avoidance, and safety of life at sea.  For instance, vessel pilots rely on GPS to guide fully loaded LPG tankers up the Delaware River ship channel and under several bridges to their berth in south Philadelphia.  The Coast Guard relies on GPS to navigate their aircraft and vessels and to pinpoint the location of boaters in distress.

  “During tests of the LightSquared signal, the Coast Guard observed varying levels of interference with GPS dependent technologies critical for search and rescue, port security, maritime safety, and environmental stewardship. I look forward to hearing testimony from the Coast Guard this morning elaborating on the issue of interference and what can be done to mitigate it.

“I want to take a moment to express my extreme disappointment with the Department of Homeland Security in its handling of this issue.  The Department, whose mission it is to ensure the safety and security of the maritime transportation system, has failed to formally weigh in on this matter.  The Departments of Defense, Transportation, Commerce, and Interior, as well as NASA and other federal agencies were all able to publicly express their concerns prior to the FCC granting a conditional waiver to LightSquared in January.  But nearly six months later, the Department of Homeland Security is still “examining” the issue.  I find that unacceptable.

“I am also very frustrated the Secretary continues to drag her feet in determining the need for a back-up to GPS.  The Administration shut down LORAN, the nation’s only GPS back-up system, in February 2010 with no plan for putting in place a new system or even a determination of whether a back-up is needed.  Pursuant to the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010, this determination was required by April 10, 2011.  The potential disruptions to GPS that we are meeting here today to discuss underscore how imperative it is that the Department completes this review as soon as possible.

“Finally, I understand LightSquared has proposed in recent days to limit the signal strength and the frequency they intend to use in an effort to resolve some of these issues.  I commend them for that, but I have concerns that this may still interfere with critical GPS dependent technologies.  I urge LightSquared, the federal government, and all those affected to actively participate in the testing of this revised proposal to ensure it will not affect the safety and security of our nation.  I thank the Chairman for holding this hearing with me today and I look forward to hearing from our broad range of witnesses on the potential solutions to this problem.”

For more information from today’s hearing, including witness testimony, click here.