WASHINGTON — A new, ultra-fast wireless Internet network is threatening to overpower GPS signals across the U.S. and interfere with everything from airplanes to police cars to consumer navigation devices.
The problem stems from a recent government decision to let a Virginia company called LightSquared build a nationwide broadband network using airwaves next to those used for GPS. Manufacturers of GPS equipment warn that strong signals from the planned network could jam existing navigation systems.
A technical fix could be expensive — billions of dollars by one estimate — and there's no agreement on who should pay. Government officials pledge to block LightSquared from turning on its network as scheduled this year unless they receive assurances that GPS systems will still work.
The stakes are high not only for the GPS industry and its users, but also for those who would use LightSquared's network. In approving it, the Federal Communications Commission seeks to boost wireless competition and bring faster and cheaper Internet connections to all Americans — even in remote corners of the country.
LightSquared and the FCC both insist the new network can co-exist with GPS systems. But device makers fear GPS signals will suffer the way a radio station can get drowned out by a stronger broadcast in a nearby channel.
The problem, they say, is that sensitive satellite receivers — designed to pick up relatively weak signals coming from space — could be overwhelmed when LightSquared starts sending high-power signals from as many as 40,000 transmitters on the ground using the airwaves next door.
"The potential impact of GPS interference is so vast, it's hard to get your head around," said Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of Trimble Navigation Ltd., which makes GPS systems. "Think 40,000 GPS dead spots covering millions of square miles in cities and towns throughout the U.S."
One of the biggest risks is to the GPS navigation systems used by about 40 percent of commercial and private planes. Backup systems that rely on ground-based radio signals are not as accurate and have coverage gaps. Some older private planes have no backup at all.
With GPS interference, a pilot "may go off course and not even realize it," said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
LightSquared's network could also undermine the Federal Aviation Administration's multi-billion-dollar program to upgrade the nation's air-traffic control system, which is based on World War II-era radar technology.
The new GPS-based system is more precise and lets planes fly more direct routes. That will save airlines time, money and fuel and cut pollution. It is also key to accommodating projected increases in airline traffic by enabling planes to fly safely closer together.
Public-safety officials, too, are nervous about LightSquared because they rely on GPS to track and dispatch police cars, fire trucks and ambulances. Many 911 systems also use GPS to help locate people. Disruptions could delay responses to emergencies, said Harlin McEwen, an official with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Even the Pentagon has expressed concern as it relies on GPS to guide planes, ships, armored vehicles, weapons and troops.
LightSquared plans to compete nationally with super-fast, fourth-generation wireless services being rolled out by the likes of AT&T and Verizon Wireless. It won't sell directly to consumers, though. Instead, LightSquared will provide network access to companies including Leap Wireless, parent of the Cricket phone service, and Best Buy, which will rebrand the service under its own name.