Lawmaker to DHS: 'Where's the GPS backup plan?'

Report on the need for an alternative system is more than two months overdue, House Republican says.

The possibility that a national broadband wireless network from LightSquared could knock out Global Positioning System signals raises serious questions about the need for a backup plan, but Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said this week that the Homeland Security Department is more than two months late in delivering a report on that topic.

The 2010 Coast Guard Authorization Act gave Homeland Security until April 10 to determine whether a GPS backup satellite system is needed. The department's failure to meet this deadline is "very frustrating," LoBiondo said during a joint hearing of two House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittees. "DHS is pretending Congress and this oversight committee do not exist," he said.

Concerns about a backup plan are especially pressing because in February the Coast Guard shut down a land-based navigation system -- Long-Range Aids to Navigation (Loran) -- in operation since World War II, after certifying that it did not need the 24-station Loran to host an advanced system known as eLoran , which provides GPS-like accuracy.

LoBiondo, chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, and Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, detailed their concerns about the lack of a backup system in a briefing memo distributed to members prior to the hearing. With the termination of Loran, "at present the Coast Guard and users of the maritime transportation system remain reliant exclusively on GPS for geospatial data critical to navigation safety," the memo said.

LoBiondo and Petri added, "Given the absence of a backup system for maritime safety, GPS interference concerns posed by LightSquared . . . are of particular concern to this committee."

Rear Adm. Robert Day, Coast Guard assistant commandant for command, control, communications, computers and information technology, told the hearing most Coast Guard systems rely heavily on the position information GPS provides. The Coast Guard also depends on GPS for its search-and-rescue operations, which would cease to function without accurate time signals, Day told the hearing.

Michael Bergman, a positioning, navigation and timing specialist at Homeland Security, told a meeting of the National Space-based PNT Advisory Board on June 9 that DHS is investigating alternatives to GPS for radio transmission of timing signals, but he did not provide any details.

LoBiondo asked Day when Homeland Security will deliver the overdue GPS backup plan report. Day said he assumed that it was under review, but did not say when the document could be expected. DHS also did not provide a delivery date.