Upcoming 4G cell net may break national GPS network: Garmin

'No it won't,' 4G company says; just let us build some filters.

The global positioning satellite navigation system was designed to survive acts of war, terrorism, the dangers of near-Earth orbit and the effort of rival armies to disrupt it.

The whole thing could come crashing down if the FCC allows a startup 4G wireless broadband provider to put its network into operation, according to a study from consumer GPS market leader Garmin International.

In January the FCC approved a plan for the wireless broadband provider LightSquared to build as many as 40,000 cell-phone towers to supplement satellite transmitters as part of a plan to build a LTE broadband network that will cover 92 percent of the U.S. by 2015.

The company is funded primarily by a pair of maverick billionaires who hired Nokia Siemens to build the network and plan to sell its bandwidth wholesale to cell carriers when the network goes live starting late in 2011 or early 2012.

Its network depends on a single Boeing-built satellite launched into geostationary orbit in November, supplemented by the cell towers approved by the FCC.

According to Garmin's study, the L-band frequencies the network will use could generate enough interference on the L1 frequency that is the primary conduit for both civil and military GPS networks to make many GPS devices unusable.

Testing with aviation and consumer receivers and a simulated LightSquared base station created “disastrous interference,” according to documentation Garmin filed with the FCC.

A LightSquared spokesman promises the integration work the company is required by the FCC to do with GPS manufacturers includes providing filters that will keep the L-band signals from interfering with GPS' L1, even though the two are close on the electromagnetic spectrum.

There is plenty of time for filters and tweaks, before the June 15 deadline, however, let alone the end of 2011, when the first portions of the network are supposed to go into tests.

Sprint is reportedly already negotiating with LightSquared for bandwidth, leaving its deal with ClearWire to operate a nationwide WiMax network in doubt.

For business customers, having another 4G provider, especially a wholesaler whose service should be available through several front-line providers, can only be good for competition. That means more features, lower prices and more pressure on market-leader Verizon to respond to customers, especially if the combination of satellite and orbital pickups upends Verizon's claim of having the greatest network reach.

Assuming your GPS still works well enough to get you back to the office, that alone could make LightSquared worth a call.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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