You’re moving to a new apartment in a neighborhood just about to gentrify – lots of kitschy architecture, a sprinking of indie coffee shops, bodegas, hallal markets and kosher deli’s – you are about to be living the dream.After your first night in the new apartment you realize you really don’t need to set your smart phone alarm-app, because right our your window you can see a giant Kit Cat Clock, with its eyes wiggling back and forth sixty times a minute, and a series of loud chimes sounding off every half-hour. After a few nights you’re pretty comfortable with relying on the clock down the street to wake you up at either 0430 or 0500, plenty of time for the day shift.
Tuesday of the second week, you wake up, the birds are chirping and the car horns are honking, and you realize that you’ve overslept. You look out the window, there’s the cat-clock with scaffolding around it and they’re working on the mechanism. The chimes haven’t gone off since just after you went to bed.
You call work, they’re mad and say “your supe will talk to you when you get here”, what a PITA, and you’re rushing out the door to minimize the damage. Damned KitCatClock! It’s their fault!
Is it really their fault, or is it your own fault for relying on somebody else without any basis that makes your expectation reasonable?
Did you ever pay for, or contribute to, the clock? Did the company ever commit to provide you a service? If you’re taking the benefit (just like listening to but not sponsoring NPR, or piggybacking your neighbor’s WiFi) without contributing or establishing stakeholder status, does the clock company assume a responsibility to provide a service? Are they obligated to maintain the clock indefinitely for your benefit?
Has the advertising company taken on a liability to ensure you can use their clock? Do you have standing to even say anything about this?
They seem like silly questions, a contrived situation whipped into a ridiculous conclusion, but it may illustrate a few points about NextGen.
The entire infrastructure basis for NextGen is complete reliance on the United States’ NavStar global navigation satellite system (GNSS), our network of GPS satellites. Russia is developing GLONASS, China is developing Compass, and Europe is developing Galileo. These are competitive, non-complementary systems.
Operationally, the NextGen ATC system is completely reliant on GPS. No GPS, no NextGen. Financially, the only way they can cost-justify NextGen is to stop maintaining the buildings and roofs and the power supplies at the thousands of legacy ground stations. NextGen puts all our eggs in the GPS basket.
There are concerns with a system completely dependant on GPS satellites. Satellites fail, they’re hard to troubleshoot and replace, sunspots affect them, and the Chinese seem to be able to shoot them down. And there’s another thing: the radio signal from the satellite in orbit (20k miles up) to an airplane’s GPS receiver is pretty weak. That radio signal is not nearly as strong as a signal sent from a (legacy, ground-based) VOR. It becomes very important that nothing interfere with the faint GPS radio signal.
This becomes interesting and possibly arcane. From Wikipedia:
In January 2011, the FCC approved a wireless broadband network by the Virginia company LightSquared, to be operational in 92 percent of the United States by 2015. This approval came despite concerns by GPS equipment manufacturers that the network signals could interfere with GPS. The FCC believed LightSquared would not cause problems.
One problem was equipment designed to receive weak signals from satellites; LightSquared had up to 40,000 ground-based transmitters whose signals would be much stronger. According to the AOPA, airline pilots “may go off course and not even realize it.”
The problems could also affect the Federal Aviation Administration upgrade to the air traffic control system, United States Defense Department guidance, and local emergency services including 911.
The FCC, which is in charge of spectrum assignments, has issued LightSquared a license to operate metropolitan wifi-type radios across America. LightSquared intends to transmit using 32 decibel/watts (dBw) of power per channel, although the FCC has authorized them to use 42 dBw. Let me emphasize that this isn’t a vaporware proposal; this is an authorized, approved project scheduled for implementation in 92% of American cities by 2015.
Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA)
The RTCA is the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, and if there was a shadow force in American aviation it would be RTCA. RTCA is paid for by FAA, but RTCA is organized as a private corporation and, as such, its work is not authoritative or transparent.
The RTCA study concludes that “the current LightSquared terrestrial authorization [from the Federal Communications Commission, FCC] would be incompatible with the current aviation use of GPS. . . .”
Among the RTCA recommendations was the following: “From an aviation perspective, LightSquared upper channel operation should not be allowed.”
Given the size of the planned deployment, “GPS-based operations below about 2000 feet will be unavailable over a large radius from the metro deployment center (assuming no other metro deployments are nearby),” the executive summary stated. “Given the situation in the high altitude U.S. East Coast scenario, GPS-based operations will likely be unavailable over a whole region at any normal aircraft altitude.”
What’s kind of interesting is that while the NextGen aviation industry is working on the FAA to “fix” the LightSquared issue (by making it go away), in fact the FAA is not in charge of spectrum allocation – the FCC is in charge. The fact that the FAA has tolerated/advocated aviation use of low-powered, weak-signalled satellite systems without adequate protection is not necessarily a problem for the FCC. (In other words, failure to plan on FAA’s part is not necessarily a crisis for FCC.) The FCC has given LightSquared permission (license) to proceed.
When Industry sold NextGen to the FAA, they convinced FAA to exploit and rely on the GPS system somebody else paid for and maintained (the clock down the street) as the basis for a leading-edge, no backup, national safety system.
In the LightSquared instance, RTCA and FAA are protesting to the FCC about the loss of somebody else’s (ie, DoD) big and free alarm clock, which RTCA-FAA-NextGen never paid for, invested in, or subscribed to. It’s interesting to note that DoD is not complaining.
This is a political question, and the solution will involve politics and sufficient transfers of public funds to make everybody happy – because LightSquared is a law-abiding American company.
Here is the dog that did not bark:
Parenthetically, some people have made millions speculating on FCC spectrum decisions.