An enlightening cab ride with Mrs. LightSquared

lightsquared falcon.jpg

In the oddest of circumstances, I came face-to-face, sort of, with the company that many say is poised to ruin GPS.

That company is LightSquared, who with the FCC’s permission, is prepping to roll out a new 4G broadband network later this year. LIke other terrestrial broadband systems, it will need about 40,000 cell phone towers to adequately provide coverage.

The potential problem in this case however is that the signals being piped out come down from satellites and are in the “L band”, a normally very “quiet” spectrum where very low-power GPS operates. Experts from the aerospace community, including the DOD, DOT, FAA, airframers, avionics makers, etc, etc, etc say all the hubbub on the LightSquared network could make it difficult for GPS units to determine their position, hence not provide a navigation solution for those of us who use it almost constantly. Studies are underway now to quantify the magnitude of the problem.

As a commercial-rated pilot, flight instructor and aerospace reporter who tends to pick up avionics stories, I have been keeping track of the story, as you can imagine.

So starts the odd encounter.

On Monday (March 14), I flew with one of my partners, Reid, in our Piper Archer II to the Charlottesville-Albemarle (KCHO) airport in Viginia to attend the early afternoon unveiling of a scramjet project being led by the University of Virginia. It was a beautiful day for a VFR flight into the foothills of the Shenandoahs.

So, after a very nice visit with Dr. Chris Goyne at the University  (here’s the story on that one), we waited for the same cabbie who brought us to the engineering building from the airport. His business card touted that the vehicles were “GPS dispatched”.

Turns out the cabbie was a bit late because he had picked up another customer from the airport, and she would join us for part of the ride back to CHO. She was en route to the local mall to buy some reading glasses, after which the cabbie was going to pick her up again later.

The customer was very chatty, and was asking Reid and I about the hypersonic engine mockup and sounding rocket she had seen on the lawn at the school when they picked us up.

I eventually got around to asking why she was in Charlottsville and how she got to the airport (I had assumed she had come in via commercial service in a lowly Dash-8, CRJ or ERJ).

She revealed that she had in fact come in on a Dassault Falcon private jet belonging to her husband, whom the pilots dropped off in Washington DC before bringing her to Charlottesville. They apparently had originated the flight from their home in the West Palm Beach area that morning.

That led to me asking what her husband did for a living, flying her around in such a nice jet. As an aside, I wasn’t able to determine what type of Falcon from the conversation as she didn’t recall how many engines it had…

Grudingly, she gave up that her husband “was in communications”. Oh, with whom, I asked? “You would not have heard of them”, she said.

Try me, I pestered.

“LightSquared”

Gulp…

After revealing my ties to the name, she became surprisingly astute (compared to the Falcon mystery), telling us how this type of interference has always been a potential issue for GPS.

She was right, of course, but there’s never been a company like LightSquared testing the limits, and doing so with what some say are some shady dealings…).

After we dropped her off, I turned to the cabbie and explained the seriousness of the issue and what was at risk.

He pointed to his GPS unit suction-cupped to the windshield of the mini-van. “You mean this?” he said, wide-eyed.

I never did figure out exactly who her husband was, but I’m guessing he’s pretty high up in the company, given her not-too-shabby air ride – a Falcon 20 (pictured above at the airport).

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