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On June 28, 2010 President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum regarding “Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution”.  This memorandum made clear statements about the direction the United States should head regarding its digital infrastructure.  It opens stating:

America’s future competitiveness and global technology leadership depend, in part, upon the availability of additional spectrum.  The world is going wireless, and we must not fall behind.  The resurgence of American productivity growth that started in the 1990s largely reflects investments by American companies, the public sector, and citizens in the new communications technologies that are what we know today as the Internet.  The Internet, as vital infrastructure, has become central to the daily economic life of almost every American by creating unprecedented opportunities for small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. We are now beginning the next transformation in information technology:  the wireless broadband revolution.

We are now beginning the next transformation in information technology:  the wireless broadband revolution.

President Obama further points out that:

In order to achieve mobile wireless broadband’s full potential, we need an environment where innovation thrives, and where new capabilities also are secure, trustworthy, and provide appropriate safeguards for users’ privacy. These characteristics will continue to be important to the adoption of mobile wireless broadband.

One company has seemingly answered President Obama’s call seeking to place some 40,000 wireless communication towers in order to allow the United States to enter into “the wireless broadband revolution”. LightSquared states in a July 30, 2010 press release:

Today marks the launch of LightSquared™, a new nationwide 4G-LTE wireless broadband network integrated with satellite coverage that will revolutionize communications in the United States. As the nation’s first wholesale-only integrated wireless broadband and satellite network, LightSquared will provide wireless broadband capacity to a diverse group of customers, including retailers; wireline and wireless communication service providers; cable operators; device manufacturers; web players; content providers; and many others. TheLightSquared network will allow these partners to offer satellite-only, terrestrial-only, or integrated satellite-terrestrial services to their end users. This wholesale-only business model ensures LightSquared has no conflict of interest with its customers. LightSquared seeks to transform the wireless broadband industry to one that fosters innovation, creativity, and freedom of choice via the first truly open and net neutral wireless network.

Honestly what could be better than a wireless network that can deliver these promises. In subsequent press releases LightSquared has pointed out the implications that a wireless broadband network can have in crossing the digital divide and providing fast, reliable service to rural communities.

But all is not well.  On July 15, 2011 the Coalition of Geospatial Organizations (COGO) released a letter expressing their concerns about the proposed LightSquared network and its interference with Global Positioning Systems.  Their letter states:

COGO and its member organizations are therefore very concerned that the introduction of high-power, high-density terrestrial-only broadband transmitters in the spectrum adjacent to the Radio navigation Satellite Service operating in the 1559 – 1610 MHz frequency band will seriously interfere with reception of GPS signals operating in this band.  Any level of possible interference will affect the ability to collect sufficiently robust GPS signals to achieve the critical task of geospatial data collection.

Any level of possible interference will affect the ability to collect sufficiently robust GPS signals to achieve the critical task of geospatial data collection. 

Several other geospatial organizations including URISA (Urban and Regional Information Systems Association) have also come on board to express their concerns and to push the Federal Communications Commission toward ensuring compatibility between the two technologies. The concerns are pervasive enough to have coalesced into a “Coalition to Save Our GPS” seeking to educate the public on the interference found to be caused by LightSquared’s plan and to gain support to force modifications that would eliminate any interference. According to their talking points, “The FCC must make clear, and the NTIA must ensure, that LightSquareds license modification is contingent on the outcome of the mandated study unequivocally demonstrating that there is no interference to GPS.”

Barbed barriers to communication - by Sharat Ganapati http://www.flickr.com/people/frozenchipmunk/

One certainly can’t argue GPS is the niche technology that it was 10 years ago (largely as a result of President Clinton’s decision to turn off the “selective availability” signal degradation technology allowing it to emerge as an effective end-user technology). GPS has become an everyday technology with integration into automotive navigational systems, cameras, laptops, cell phones, etc. We’re not even talking about its specialized applications in homeland security, defense, transportation, inventory control, surveying, etc. GPS is something that has become so integral to modern society that it’s doubtful that we can live without it.

On the other hand wireless communication isn’t going anywhere either. In a society that demands to have instant access to information from anywhere, slowing wireless proliferation seems somewhat of a losing battle. While this will likely result in a small hiccup from a technological standpoint (just a quick glance at the military’s rapid deployment and modification of signal jamming technology highlights how quickly technology evolves in this arena), it likely highlights a problem that is going to become more prevalent in the near future. As we continue to roll out new technologies how are we going to ensure that we are balancing out the spectrum… and how are we going to ensure that we aren’t building a self-limiting system (in that valuable spectrum space isn’t assigned to technologies with a rapid obsolescence)?

Author Cindy Sage highlights another issue regarding the introduction of additional frequencies and volume to the wireless spectrum pointing out that research does not provide us with an accurate conception of the ecological carrying capacity of wireless communication. While this argument has continued to resonate with the proliferation of wireless communication towers throughout the United States, it certainly becomes more pronounced as we continue to pump more and more of our information flow into the airwaves. It doesn’t appear that we have a clear understanding of the long-term health impacts of wireless communications technology simply because they have been around at the current densities of exposure until now… and that level is increasing all the time. The problem is further complicated by proverbial handcuffs placed on regulating wireless tower placement on the virtue of environmental or human health impacts.

I’m certainly not against wireless proliferation. I say that with two cell phones, an iPad, a netbook computer, and a desktop computer sitting on my desk. What I am saying is that we’ve managed to work ourselves into an interesting conundrum where wireless technology has managed to outpace our ability to critically evaluate it. It would certainly be within our best interest to step back and make sure we’re not putting ourselves in a situation that somehow limits our further technological advancement or that in some way turns the tide of public sentiment against what is now one of the pillars of modern communications technology.

Josh O’Conner is a Planner/Zoning Administrator in Asheville, North Carolina. You can find him on the web at triggerhippie.com, localplan.org, or twitter.com/joshoconner.