GPS and the Politics of Scarce Resources

A new controversy illustrates the precarious security of one of the nation's most valuable assets.

In the 1960s, David Easton famously defined politics as the authoritative allocation of scarce resources. Today, one of the scarcest resources is radio-frequency spectrum. Modern communications systems—television, radio, cell phones, WIFI—transmit and receive signals using an assigned portion of this invisible domain. If two systems try to use the same “slice” of spectrum at the same time, interference and weak, inaccurate signals can result.

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

Fighting for Spectrum

In 2010, LightSquared announced its plans for a new nationwide network for high-speed, mobile communications based on the new 4G standard. Its business model appeared to fit in nicely with President Obama’s June 2010 memo calling for “unleashing the wireless broadband revolution” by making more spectrum available for wireless broadband use.

LightSquared’s technical solution entailed erecting nearly forty thousand towers across the country that would broadcast in a frequency band immediately adjacent to the one used by the Global Positioning System (GPS). Early on, this raised concerns that the private network's strong transmissions would overpower and degrade the much weaker GPS signals.

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

After assessing test results from both LightSquared and multiple government agencies (including the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and the air force, which develops, launches and operates the GPS satellites), the FCC concluded last month that LightSquared’s proposed network would indeed adversely impact GPS services. Moreover, it saw no practical way to mitigate the potential interference in the short term. Accordingly, the FCC signaled it would not give final approval to build the network.

LightSquared claims that it has already invested more than $4 billion in the project. The fallout from the FCC decision was almost immediate: The company’s CEO resigned. Employees were laid off. Sprint Nextel canceled a key contract. Published reports indicate that LightSquared might declare bankruptcy. And Republican lawmakers have asked to see the 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 has been for the company and its investors, as well as for proponents of expanded access to mobile broadband, approving the use of a system that threatened to interfere with GPS would have been a 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 highly precise time signal. By calculating the difference in the arrival times of the signals from different satellites, observers with the right equipment can mathematically derive their exact position and, if moving, their velocity and heading as well.

The air force originally developed the system as an aid to long-range navigation across the oceans or featureless terrain. It has proven so accurate and reliable that older forms of navigation— such as using a map and compass, or “shooting the stars” with a sextant—have largely fallen into disuse and become a lost art. The military has progressively applied the use of GPS to a wider range of operations. These include the development of highly accurate “smart bombs” that can more effectively destroy targets while producing less collateral damage to the surrounding areas, as well as steerable parachutes that can quickly and safely deliver supplies to troops in 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 of charge. Engineers and entrepreneurs have accordingly developed hundreds of civil and commercial applications that rely heavily upon GPS signals. Virtually every new car produced in America today comes equipped with a GPS-based navigation system. Modern equipment for agriculture, surveying, seismic monitoring, transportation, shipping, emergency services, search and rescue, and disaster relief all have become dependent upon GPS. The system also will serve as the foundation for a far more efficient and safer global air-traffic-control system as older infrastructure is replaced.

Less well-known are the myriad other applications that take advantage of GPS’s precise time signal. Many communication systems, electrical power grids and financial networks rely on GPS to synchronize their operations or “date-stamp” transactions. ATMs, credit-card purchases and even the smooth operation of the Internet itself depend upon GPS timing.

In other words, GPS has become an integral aspect of military, economic and societal infrastructure throughout the world. It is, in effect, a global utility for the information age. For that reason, serious interference with the GPS signal, whatever the cause, would significantly disrupt the normal course of daily life.

For now, GPS has been protected from a serious threat to its reliability and effectiveness. But given the obvious risks, it’s worth pondering how the federal government and LightSquared wound up in this unpleasant situation in the first place.

Bureaucratic Failure?

The publicly available documents leave the impression that a strong desire to implement top-level administration guidance, which demanded more spectrum be made available for broadband use, led to an ill-considered rush to judgment by the FCC. Though its January 2011 decision was carefully caveated, the FCC did give the nod for LightSquared to proceed—even though major segments of the government and the GPS user community urged caution.

While federal officials have a responsibility to carry out the policies of the president, they also have an obligation to exercise their best judgment in doing so. Private companies by their very nature vigorously promote their products’ potential to meet perceived needs. But when it comes to private use of public goods, claims must be subject to a rigorous analysis of benefits and risks, including unintended consequences. That 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.