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An accident waiting to happen?

21 July 2020

The global positioning system (GPS) has become an invaluable tool in a wide range of personal, commercial, industrial and military applications.

Without the sat-nav in our cars or on our phones we'd have to go back to using those awkard maps that never fold back up into the same form as when they were first purchased.

Aircraft, ships, surveyors and a huge swathe of other things rely heavily on the GPS system and if it were to disappear or become untrustworthy, the cost would be enormous.

With all this in mind, it begars belief that in the USA, a service is being rolled out which threatens to destabilise or even eliminate the utility of the GPS service. How can this be allowed to happen?

What is this esoteric service that is licensed to operate so close to GPS frequencies that it could be a disruptive force?

Well it's an element of the up and coming 5G communications technology that, we're told, will change the world.

In the USA, a company called Ligado Networks has been issued license to create a network that operates on frequencies (L-band) very close to those used by the GPS system. This is despite claims by the US military and other parties which stand to be affected, that the service will compromise the availability and integrity of satelite-based navigation systems that are critical not only to the nation's defense but also to its economic prosperity and the safety of the public.

There is a fairly good article on this running on the website.

The problem is that by the time they reach the surface of the Earth, the signals broadcast by GPS satellites is very weak and therefore prone to interference from equipment operating on nearby frequencies. The band to be used by Ligado Networks was originally intended only for satellite-based transmissions which means that it would also be so weak that it would not interfere with GPS signals. Ligado however, have been given license to use this band for terrestrial transmissions and that changes the game significantly.

The list of complainants about this decision is long and noteworthy, even including Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the jet which crash-landed in the Hudson River a few years ago.

All those objecting point to the risks that terrestrial use of the L-band will create but it seems that the FCC isn't listening -- perhaps deafened by the opportunity to sell L-band licenses for a very significant amount of money.

What will be extremely interesting is the effect that Ligado Networks' transmissions will have on the roll-out of drone technology.

Virtually all drones rely heavily on a reliable, robust GPS signal for navigation and to lose that signal is almost guaranteed to produce extremely dangerous incidents such as this one.

At a time when it has become illegal to fly a child's toy in your own back-yard due to the unacceptable "risk" this poses, how on earth can the USA's regulatory authorities explain away such a huge stuff-up that has the potential to turn every commercial drone into an unmanned and effectively uncontrolable missile?

Clearly, when money becomes the driving factor and when decisions are made on the basis of who has the biggest cheque-book and expense accounts, safety flies out the window. The USA is increasingly becoming a nation driven by lobbyists and where it is not "one man, one vote" but "one dollar, one vote".

I do not see this ending well and I expect there will be huge court battles looming to wrestle control of the L-band away from Ligado or we will see fatal accidents forcing an about-face.

Has tech always been this way? What ever happened to the good old days when tech was tech... you know, before tech became politics and power-plays?

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