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Falcone’s LightSquared Disrupts Plane Safety Gear in U.S. Tests

Philip Falcone’s LightSquared wireless service disrupts safety equipment that uses the global-positioning system to help keep airliners from crashing into the ground, U.S. officials said.

LightSquared’s signals caused “interference with a flight safety system designed to warn pilots of approaching terrain” in government tests of the proposed network, according to a statement from the Defense and Transportation departments distributed yesterday by e-mail.

U.S. officials are testing for interference with GPS devices as they consider whether to let LightSquared operate its network. The service would let clients, such as Best Buy Co., offer cheaper wireless services and products, LightSquared Chief Executive Officer Sanjiv Ahuja said in a Dec. 9 interview.

LightSquared has proposed offering high-speed mobile Internet to as many as 260 million people. The Reston, Virginia-based company is backed by $3 billion from Falcone’s Harbinger Capital Partners hedge fund. Harbinger peaked at $26 billion in 2008 after a successful bet on the housing market and has slipped to $5.7 billion in assets.

LightSquared’s critics say the service’s powerful signals from 40,000 base stations would overwhelm faint emissions from satellites that feed GPS devices. LightSquared says that GPS devices improperly gather signals from its swath of airwaves.

The company will work with the Federal Aviation Administration on resolving interference with terrain-avoidance systems identified yesterday, Ahuja said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Laws of Physics’

“The laws of physics have not changed,” Steve Lott, spokesman for Airlines for America, a trade group representing large carriers, said in an e-mailed statement. “The most recent report adds to the growing research and data showing that LightSquared transmitters could effectively jam the GPS network over the populated areas of the United States.”

Members of the Washington-based group, formerly known as the Air Transport Association, include Delta Air Lines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co. and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines.

Yesterday’s findings were distributed to a steering group representing seven federal agencies that make up the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing, according to the statement. The interagency body coordinates federal use of GPS equipment, and will make recommendations to agencies that regulate airwaves use.

Testing found “no significant interference with cellular phones,” according to the statement. “However, the testing did show that LightSquared signals caused harmful interference to the majority of other tested general-purpose GPS receivers.”

Navigation Devices

The results validate LightSquared’s “compatibility with the nation’s 300 million cellular phones,” Ahuja said in his e-mailed statement yesterday. “We profoundly disagree with the conclusions drawn with respect to general navigation devices.”

The general-purpose tests on devices used in automobiles and boats showed that LightSquared’s signals caused harmful interference to 75 percent of GPS units used in cars and boats, according to a draft summary seen last week by Bloomberg News.

Fewer devices are affected if LightSquared proposals to reduce its power are taken into account, and all remain “completely operable,” Terry Neal, a LightSquared spokesman, said in an interview Dec. 13.

More government tests are planned for high-precision GPS receivers, a category that includes those used for scientific monitoring and for timing electricity distribution.

‘Pull Up!’

LightSquared’s effect on the air-safety system was the subject of a separate analysis by the FAA, according to yesterday’s statement.

The safety system displays any terrain or man-made obstruction in the path of an aircraft. If a plane flies too close to danger, the system sounds increasingly dire warnings urging a pilot to “Pull up!”

These devices have been required on turbine-powered aircraft since 2005 and are credited with nearly eliminating crashes in which pilots hit the ground in darkness or bad weather, according to the FAA. The system uses GPS to determine a plane’s position, which it matches against a worldwide database of terrain, radio towers, buildings and airports.

The U.S. testing is being coordinated by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department. The agency is assessing test results, Moira Vahey, a spokeswoman, said yesterday in an interview.

‘Serious’ Interference

“The results reported today confirm yet again the depth and breadth of the serious GPS interference problems raised by LightSquared’s proposed plans, even after many rounds of changes to these plans by LightSquared,” Dale Leibach, a spokesman for the Coalition to Save Our GPS, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

The organization, formed to oppose LightSquared’s plans, includes navigation-gear makers Garmin Ltd. and Trimble Navigation Ltd., and package shippers FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc.

Also yesterday, the U.S. House passed language requiring the defense secretary to notify Congress if there is widespread interference with the military’s use of GPS caused by a commercial communications service.

“It is unacceptable for our armed forces to be put at greater risk or made less effective as a result of LightSquared’s operations,” Representative Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican who inserted the language into a defense spending bill, said in an e-mailed statement.

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