It would take ten years to redesign and re-equip the commercial air fleet with GPS systems protected from interference from LightSquared.
In the meantime the FAA claims it would have to return at least partially to ground-based navigational systems in some areas – after just moving completely onto GPS-based navigation during the past few years.
It would also have to re-design and re-plan the deployment of its next-generation GPS navigational system, which it expects will be good enough to prevent enough accidents to save 800 lives during the next 10 years.
LightSquared, by agreeing to buy its 3G and LTE spectrum wholesale from Sprint for the time being, rather than launching a service that might cause problems with GPS and would definitely cause even more painful knots in the FAA's shorts, is saving the lives of 80 commercial airline passengers per year.
Granted that's only about half the number waiting for last-minute cancellations on every overbooked flight stacked up waiting to leave major U.S. airports every 30 seconds all day, every day all year 'round.
In economic terms, 80 people on standby are worth a minimum of 80 small-sandwich-and-beverage purchases to airport food vendors at a total expenditure of $12,840,000. So you can see the economic impact is at least as big as the human cost.
LightSquared's CEO said the problem is that GPS manufacturers didn't build their gear well enough to avoid interference and their protestations to the contrary are "histrionic."
It seems unlikely we'll suddenly start having lots of airline crashes because there's a little interference from a cell network broadcasting below the frequency of the GPS network.
LightSquared is going $9 billion out of its way to avoid the possibility, though, money the FAA can expect to have to repay if it turns out there is either an easy fix for the interference or the projections about its seriousness are overblown.
For Sprint subscribers there is only more optimism that the one major cell carrier that is not in a crisis right now over either its capacity or its business practices is getting a large enough infusion of cash that it might be able to accelerate its 4G rollout.