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Broadband vs. GPS

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It's not an "either/or" situation

In the growing debate over the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) decision to grant a conditional waiver to LightSquared to use spectrum that has always been reserved for satellite-generated signals some have tried to characterize it as an either/or situation:

Either put your support behind LightSquared's plans to create a U.S.-wide broadband network, Or stand up for the Global Positioning System (GPS), a national utility upon which millions of Americans depend every day.

But that's a false premise. The reality is that the United States can, and should, have both.

It's just that in doing so, the matter needs to be approached in a much more methodical manner than the way in which the FCC is currently proceeding. As it stands now, the U.S. runs the risk of one arm of the government - the FCC - gravely harming GPS, the product of another arm of the government, the Department of Defense.

President Obama is pushing for dramatically increased broadband availability, pledging in his State of the Union address to ensure 98 percent of Americans have high-speed wireless access within a few years. It's hard to argue about the desirability of Americans having that kind of access, and we certainly don't.

But the current LightSquared situation, in which the FCC has granted that company a conditional waiver to establish a massive ground-based transmission system in close spectral proximity to GPS - one with radio signals that are one billion times more powerful, as received on earth, than signals from a GPS satellite - is extremely unusual and puzzling.

Typically, FCC matters are handled with extensive testing followed by a decision based on the test results. In the case of LightSquared, the process was approve first, then test. The FCC did, after granting the conditional waiver, set up a short test period to see if LightSquared can demonstrate that harmful interference can be avoided.

But surely GPS deserves more consideration. In its steady development in recent decades, GPS has become a national utility upon which millions of Americans rely every day. LightSquared's planned 40,000 powerful ground-based transmission systems runs the considerable risk of overwhelming the much more faint GPS signals and causing widespread interference.

The nation deserves both GPS and broadband, but the FCC should not put GPS at risk to favor the other.

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