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A victory for all who rely on GPS

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Some good news for GPS manufacturers, boaters and millions of other users of the satellite-based navigation system that you may have missed, given that it broke on the eve of the Miami boat shows. The Federal Communications Commission last week said it would block a plan to build a new national wireless broadband network because it interferes with GPS devices.

The move was a major blow to efforts by LightSquared Inc., which is owned by New York hedge fund manager Philip Falcone, whose Harbinger Capital Partners has put billions into the plan for a network to provide Internet and voice services.

The FCC had given LightSquared conditional approval, pending more testing by a national technical working group on the GPS interference problem and possible solutions. The FCC said last week that the tests showed the wireless network would indeed interfere with GPS signals and that there was no practical way at this time to mitigate the problems.

LightSquared called the testing “severely flawed” and said it remained committed to finding a solution with both the federal government and the GPS industry, according to reports. GPS signals operate in a band directly adjacent to the frequency that LightSquared had proposed using.

The planned wireless network was opposed by a broad coalition of GPS manufacturers and user groups, including Garmin, the Pentagon and BoatUS, which last year came together under the Save Our GPS Coalition. Last July, BoatUS, for instance, hand-delivered 15,000 comments to the FCC from boaters who opposed the proposal.

“It is unimaginable that the federal government, the guardian of the bandwidth, would consider approving a proposal with so many problems and grave safety consequences,” BoatUS president Margaret Podlich said at the time. “Any degradation of the GPS signal will shake the confidence of recreational boaters in the nation’s GPS-reliant search-and-rescue systems.”

There are an estimated 100 million GPS devices in use in the United States. LightSquared had suggested that a new filter would correct the interference problem. Opponents said the company had “oversimplified and greatly overstated the significance” of assertions from a single vendor to have solved the interference problem.

The Wall Street Journal, in a story last week, quoted Harold Feld, the legal director for Public Knowledge, a public interest group that supported the LightSquared proposal. “The problem for Falcone is that it’s like buying Florida real estate and not just discovering that you bought swampland, but that it’s a toxic waste dump,” Feld told the newspaper.

The paper said those who know Falcone describe him as a “canny trader who should not be written off.”

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