On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dealt a near fatal blow to LightSquared’s ambitious attempt to bring a nationwide 4G broadband network to rural America. Following months of tests and attempts at a fix, LightSquared proved unable to keep its signal from interfering with global positioning system (GPS) receivers, which are increasingly employed in farm machinery.

Besides agriculture, the network was also opposed by representatives of other GPS users including the U.S. military, aviation and emergency services.

“LightSquared’s proposal to provide ground-based mobile service offered the potential to unleash new spectrum for mobile broadband and enhance competition,” said Tammy Sun, FCC spokesperson. The FCC “clearly stated from the outset that harmful interference to GPS would not be permitted.”

That is why the conditional waiver granted to the telecommunications company -- issued in January 2011 after the GPS/LightSquared spectrum conflict came to light – “prohibited LightSquared from beginning commercial operations unless harmful interference issues were resolved,” said Sun.

That FCC waiver will now be revoked, keeping LightSquared from continuing to build infrastructure. The company’s only recourse may be to take the FCC to court.

The reason for the FCC’s conclusion was largely based on tests conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which operates under the U.S. Department of Commerce. Those tests concluded last November and a report was written based on the findings.

“The NTIA found that there was significant interference between the LightSquared towers – or the network the company wanted to pursue – and GPS receivers,” said RJ Karney, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) director of congressional relations on Wednesday. “The FCC then decided not to allow LightSquared to continue working under the waiver.

“To recap, the waiver allowed LightSquared to proceed with the building of its network as long as there was no interference with GPS receivers. That led to the back-and-forth between LightSquared and GPS industries throughout almost the entirety of 2011.

“The NTIA also reported on LightSquared’s timeline. I believe that involved them rolling out their network” during the first half of 2012. “With that tight of a timeline, the NTIA concluded that even if a technical fix was possible, the amount of time and money it would take to retrofit the millions of GPS receivers being used would be too prohibitive and LightSquared shouldn’t be allowed to proceed.”

Indeed, the FCC’s Sun said the NTIA “concluded that there is no practical way to mitigate potential interference at this time. Consequently, the Commission will not lift the prohibition on LightSquared.”

The FCC will soon seek public comments on its proposals.

LightSquared pushes back

LightSquared executives have not gone down without a fight. In recent blog posts, Jeff Carlisle, Executive Vice President for Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy, has accused the U.S. GPS industry of being “too big to fail.” Needed reforms to keep the bleed-over between the competing signals, argued Carlisle, should come from the GPS side of the aisle.

“Like Wall Street, the manufacturers of GPS devices have spent years profiting off of vulnerable technology and are now seeking protection from the government instead of implementing the necessary reforms,” wrote Carlisle on Feb. 13. “This will harm consumers, businesses, and our national defense. Papering over the problem and not fixing it will hobble American commerce, public safety, innovation, and communications for years to come.

“GPS manufacturers have been selling devices that listen into frequencies outside of their assigned spectrum band -- namely into LightSquared’s licensed band. This means GPS devices are inherently vulnerable.”

To read Carlisle’s full post, see here.

Farm Bureau was not the only farm organization to agree with the FCC’s move.

“Tuesday’s decision by the FCC is certainly a great relief for more than 600,000 soybean farmers across the country who use GPS technology to precision-apply seed and fertilizer; to test fields for fertility and to monitor yields; to reduce chemical and fuel use; and to map field boundaries, roads, irrigation systems,” said Steve Wellman, American Soybean Association president. “In short, GPS technology has enabled farmers to produce more food for a growing world population with fewer inputs.

“Farmers invest thousands of dollars in high-precision GPS equipment and applications to run more efficient, sustainable, cost-effective and productive farms. The LightSquared network would have rendered that investment -- not to mention the consumer GPS market projected to reach almost $29 billion in the U.S. by 2015 -- all but useless. The FCC’s decision this week is one that is in the best interests of both the American farmer and the American consumer.”

National Corn Grower Association president Garry Niemeyer said the FCC announcement is “a welcome one for our organization. Expanded internet access is important to our members but not when it compromises the use of high-precision GPS equipment.”

Farm-state legislators also weighed in.

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley wants to know why the FCC issued LightSquared a conditional waiver in the first place. “Prematurely granting a conditional waiver in a rushed process is not the way to get the right result. Now that the interference issue is settled, we need to find out more than ever why the FCC did what it did.

“The agency put this project on a fast track for approval with what appears to have been completely inadequate technical research. After all of this time and expense, still, no one outside of the agency knows why. That’s not the way the people’s government should work.”

Meanwhile, Karney is hopeful that broadband deployment will reach farm country quickly. “It’s vital for economic development, distance learning, tele-medicine, for health care providers in rural areas, for businesses as they continue to grow, for farmers and ranchers to branch out into different markets.

“However, Farm Bureau doesn’t support the deployment of broadband at the expense of losing GPS and the importance of precision agriculture. It’s disappointing that a (solution to the LightSquared) situation couldn’t be found.”