Death Watch: The Beginning of the End for Multilateration Location and Monitoring Service?

Wireless Bureau sets final deadline for M-LMS build-outs.

Way back before GPS was so widely available, the Commission created the Multilateration Location and Monitoring Service (M-LMS). Its purpose: keeping track of vehicles. Think operators pinpointing the locations of vehicles around a city (or around the country). M-LMS licenses were auctioned (to a handful of players) in 1999 and 2001. But in the decade-plus since, no M-LMS licensee has provided commercial service.

Attentive readers may recall that one licensee, Progeny/NextNav, obtained a waiver to provide non-vehicular location service (e.g.,a cell phone tracking service). And Progeny/NextNav has also announced plans to offer E911 location based service and mobile advertising. But vehicle location? Nada. Readers may also recall that, while the FCC invited comments on proposals to expand permissible uses of the service back in 2006, earlier this year it shut that proceeding down without taking any action.

As initially granted way back when, M-LMS licenses were subject to both interim and end-of-term construction deadlines. Since then, however, the FCC has generously and repeatedly provided extensions of time (at least seven additional years!) for construction, mostly in response to licensees’ assertions that no M-LMS equipment was commercially available.

In August, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau signaled that the days of liberal extensions are now over.

The announcement occurred in an order addressing what will likely be the final round of extension requests. The Bureau has granted those requests, but with a caveat: licensees (other than Progeny, which has a separate extension/waiver request still pending) must finish building by September 4, 2016 (the new mid-term construction deadline) and September 4, 2018 (the new end-of-term construction deadline). The Bureau’s message could not be more clear: “The Bureau will not consider future requests for waiver or extension of either the interim or end-of-term construction deadline based on claims related to lack of equipment.”

With their (presumably) one last extension, M-LMS licensees will be expected “to make appropriate business decisions regarding their M-LMS licenses, including deployment of services or, if necessary, engage in secondary market transactions.” And if the equipment market doesn’t develop “consistent with M-LMS licensees’ chosen business plans”, tough: “licensees will nonetheless be subject to the construction requirements.”

Several licensees have petitioned for reconsideration, arguing that the 2016/2018 deadlines don’t give them enough time and that the Commission’s threat (or is it a promise?) to terminate their licenses is “Draconian” (capital letter actually used). One petitioner is asking for five- and ten-year extensions of the mid-term and end-of-term constructions deadlines because, according to this licensee, the Commission’s decision essentially ignores the realities of business planning. Another licensee agrees that the latest extension is inadequate, but argues that it deserves more extra time than the others because it supposedly has done more than the others towards developing intelligent transport systems.

So where does that leave us? Effective spectrum management generally calls for the regulator to maximize use of spectrum and not allow spectrum to remain fallow. In this instance, the frequency band assigned for M-LMS use – 902-928 MHz – is already well-used and effectively shared among a number of non-M-LMS services: on a primary basis, by Federal radiolocation and Part 18 Industrial Scientific and Medical (ISM) users; on a secondary basis, by other Federal government users and amateur radio; and on an unlicensed basis, by hundreds of millions of devices. While Progeny has made at least the minimum efforts to build out its network, the remaining licensees appear to have made no efforts to build. This raises the question of just how much time is “reasonable” for licensees to develop and build systems, and how much regulatory certainty should be given to co-sharers of spectrum. The Commission now has a chance to address that question for M-LMS. We shall see what happen. Check back here for updates.

Snow Job: Comments Sought on Use of LMS Spectrum for Avalanche Rescues

RECCO asks FCC for waiver of Location and Monitoring Service rules.

The Location and Monitoring Service (LMS), a somewhat obscure service nestled in Subpart M to Part 90 of the FCC’s rules, is back in the news. This could be of considerable interest to you if you’re a skier who prefers avalanche-prone slopes.

LMS was originally envisioned as a service enabling fleet operators to pinpoint the locations of their vehicles around a city. That was 20 years ago. Since then, GPS has provided a more accurate, more cost effective alternative, leaving LMS without much of a market. In 2006, a company called Progeny LMS, LLC proposed that the FCC broaden the range of services possible under an LMS license. The Commission eventually abandoned that proposal, but in the meantime Progeny managed to obtain – over considerable objections from unlicensed users of the 902-928 MHz band – a waiver permitting it to use its LMS licenses for the location of items other than vehicles, like cell phones.

Now the FCC is considering another request for waiver of the LMS rules, and it has invited public comment.

A company called RECCO AB wants to be able to use LMS spectrum in the 902-904 MHz band to locate skiers, snowboarders and other avalanche victims. The RECCO system consists of two parts: a hand-held detector that transmits a signal, and a passive reflector, integrated into apparel or other gear (helmets, boots, etc.), that reflects the signal, allowing searchers to home in on folks buried in the snow.

The LMS service was created to monitor the location of vehicles, not luckless winter sporting enthusiasts, so a waiver to deploy the avalanche rescue system is necessary. RECCO is also seeking waiver of the LMS antenna height limit, since the RECCO system may be operated from a helicopter considerably higher than the 15-meter antenna height limit in the rules. RECCO will also need a waiver of the site-by-site licensing requirement. 

According to RECCO, the odds are low that its system would interfere with other radio systems: RECCO’s system uses a short duty cycle (a 20 milliseconds transmission followed by 80 milliseconds of silence) and directional antenna with a beamwidth of approximately 50 degrees. Plus, the system would ordinarily be used in or near avalanche sites where no other co-channel radio systems are likely to be operating.

In the hotly-contested Progeny proceeding, unlicensed interests had a right to have their systems field tested against Progeny’s gear to ascertain that that gear would not cause “unacceptable levels of interference” to unlicensed devices. But Progeny’s system was a “multilateration” LMS (or M-LMS) system that used multiple transmitters to locate targets through triangulation. Part 90 does not mandate such field testing when it comes to non-multilateration systems such as RECCO’s. Nevertheless, other LMS licensees operating in the 902-904 MHz band may have something to say.

Comments are due November 13, 2014; and reply comments are due November 28 (because nothing says “Happy Thanksgiving” like turkey, football, and putting the finishing touches on a set of reply comments). They can be filed electronically through the FCC’s online filing system. Refer to Proceeding No. 14-176. 

We suspect the Commission is looking to move quickly on this, given the near-lightning speed (just over a month) at which it placed the waiver on public notice.

Same Old Status Quo at 902-928 MHz

The FCC has abandoned Location and Monitoring Service rules proposed in 2006.

It took eight years, but the FCC has walked away from a 2006 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that laid out possible new rules for the 902-928 MHz band. Among others sharing this heavily-used frequency range are Part 15 unlicensed operations, including many millions of consumer, commercial, and industrial devices, and the Part 90 Location and Monitoring Service (LMS), launched before the days of inexpensive GPS as a way of locating fleet vehicles.

The now-abandoned NPRM would have broadened the range of services possible under an LMS license. The proposals raised alarm among Part 15 manufacturers and users, who feared the changes would bring increased interference into their devices. LMS and Part 15 interests between them sent the FCC some 225 filings, the large majority dating back to 2006-07.

The FCC, without getting into the specifics, has now determined that the existing LMS rules are adequate, and accordingly has decided against adopting the 2006 proposals.

FCC Authorizes Progeny over Part 15 Objections

Location service company is deemed to have satisfied the requirement that it not cause unacceptable interference to unlicensed devices.

The FCC has authorized Progeny LMS, LLC to begin commercial operation of its Location and Monitoring Service (LMS) network. Progeny’s system uses part of the 902-928 MHz band, which is heavily occupied by unlicensed devices regulated under Part 15 of the FCC rules. The FCC action came over vigorous objection from the companies that make and use Part 15 equipment.

“So what?” knowledgeable readers will ask. After all, unlicensed devices always have to accept interference from licensed services like LMS.

Not quite always. When the FCC authorized LMS back in 1995, the 902-928 MHz band was already home to a very large array of unlicensed devices serving both consumers and industry. (Their number, variety, and importance have increased many-fold in the years since.) To ensure that LMS did not obliterate unlicensed usage, the FCC adopted a unique rule: certain LMS licenses are “conditioned upon the licensee’s ability to demonstrate through actual field tests that their systems do not cause unacceptable levels of interference to [Part 15] devices.”

Fast forward to 2011, when LMS licensee Progeny requested and was granted a waiver that permitted one-way service and the location of assets other than vehicles. The waiver grant re-triggered the field testing requirement. Progeny conducted four sets of tests and submitted the results to the FCC, which then duly requested comments about the results. Providers of unlicensed wireless Internet service and manufacturers of unlicensed automatic meter reading equipment – both of which require reliable operation – challenged the conclusions. They claimed the tests used too few unlicensed devices, non-representative devices, and conditions artificially rigged to understate interference.

At the request of the FCC staff, Progeny and some of the Part 15 interests conducted further tests on meter-reading and Internet delivery equipment. The FCC requested further comment. Again, the two sides disagreed on how to interpret the results. Along with claiming actual interference, the Part 15 companies continued to insist that Progeny’s tests omitted a large range of unlicensed devices and conditions, and that more testing is needed to properly evaluate the impact of Progeny’s transmitters.

The FCC has now dismissed those arguments.

Part of the dispute turns on the requirement that Progeny not cause “unacceptable levels” of interference to unlicensed devices. The FCC has never before spelled out what that means. Now, it tells us the “unacceptable levels” limitation calls on LMS licensees merely to “minimize” interference to Part 15, but not necessarily to eliminate it altogether. A different reading, says the FCC, would elevate Part 15 in status above LMS, which the rules never intended. Moreover, the FCC goes on, unlicensed users should know to expect some level of interference, and have the option of using equipment that is capable of shifting to other parts of the band when needed. Progeny need not test with every type of Part 15 device, the FCC adds, as that could result in endless rounds of testing.

Progeny offered to: report periodically on its build-out and any interference complaints it receives; establish a toll-free help desk for Part 15 users experiencing interference; and, if it constructs in rural areas, work with local wireless Internet service providers on mitigating interference. The FCC required the first two conditions and encouraged the third.

Editorial comment: The enormous success of the FCC’s rules permitting – indeed, promoting – unlicensed operations has, ironically, caused problems for the agency. When the most-used parts of the current regime took effect in 1985, no one dreamed that unlicensed radio devices would become as prevalent as they are now. Because these devices have always been required to accept interference, the initial uses focused on applications that did not require great reliability. But as the decades went by, and the technologies used in Part 15 equipment evolved to become more robust against interference, the devices found use in more critical applications, including the control of overhead cranes, pipeline systems, and electric utilities.

“Robust,” though, is a relative term. Equipment that works perfectly well in the pre-existing 902-928 MHz environment of ISM, federal radar, amateur radio, and other Part 15 devices may falter when exposed to new interference sources, such as LMS. Yes, the rules say Part 15 users must accept interference and operate at their own risk; and yes, Progeny has a legal right to deploy, if it satisfies the field test requirement. Still, Part 15 equipment has become so important to so many industries – and to the economy generally – that it may have earned a higher status in the spectrum.

(FHH represented clients in this proceeding.)

Update: Progeny vs. Unlicensed Users - Comment Periods Extended

We recently reported that the FCC had invited comments (and reply comments) with respect to test results that may show interference from Progeny LMS, LLC, a licensed provider in the 902-928 MHz band, into some of the myriad unlicensed devices in that same band. The invitation was issued on November 20, and provided that initial comments were to be filed by December 11, a scant three weeks later (with the long Thanksgiving weekend taking up a significant chunk of those three weeks).

The FCC has now extended the comment periods, but not by much. Progeny opposed any extension, but the Commission was persuaded that at least some additional time was warranted. As a result, comments are now due on December 21, 2012 (a whopping ten extra days) and reply comments on January 11, 2013. That latter date is curious because, in the text of the order, the Commission says that it’s “provid[ing] ten additional days for filing reply comments”. But since the original reply deadline was December 21, an extra ten days should have landed the deadline – if our math is correct – on December 31. Despite that, the order clearly specifies January 11 as the new reply deadline, which seems to constitute (again, if our math is correct) a 21-day extension. Let’s just assume that the Commission threw in the extra time in view of the intervening year-end holidays and leave it at that..

Update: Progeny vs. Unlicensed Users - FCC Invites Public Comment

Potentially at stake: the utility of the 902-928 MHz band for unlicensed operations

We recently reported on test results that may show interference from Progeny LMS, LLC, a licensed provider in the 902-928 MHz band, into some of the myriad unlicensed devices in that same band.

The FCC has now asked for public comment on those test results.

Comments are due on December 11, 2012 and reply comments on December 21.

Tests Show Threat to 900 MHz Unlicensed Band . . . Or Do They?

Licensed provider and unlicensed users disagree on meaning of joint test results.

Most of us rely on multiple unlicensed radio transmitters around our home and office. In fact, most us carry several on our person: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on our phone, wireless earphones for the music player, the gizmo that unlocks our car from across the street, a building security card . . . All of these, plus the dozens more in most homes and offices, operate under stringent FCC rules. One of those rules says these devices must accept any radio-frequency interference that comes their way. The engineers who design the products know that, and are good at working around other transmitters in the same frequency range.

There is one exception to this rule: one kind of licensed transmitter is required to protect unlicensed devices against interference. These transmitters operate in the “Location and Monitoring Service” (LMS), which uses large parts of the 902-928 MHz band. That same band is also home to a vast array of unlicensed devices that are convenient around the home (like cordless phones and baby monitors), and vital to commerce and industry (like retail inventory systems and remote controls for construction cranes). LMS providers are uniquely required to show through field tests that their equipment will not cause “unacceptable levels of interference” to unlicensed operation. This special rule reflects the FCC’s judgment that unconstrained LMS poses an exceptional threat of interference to unlicensed devices.

Late last year the FCC granted a waiver to an LMS licensee, Progeny LMS, LLC, that eased back two of the LMS rules. As a condition of the waiver, the FCC required Progeny to test for interference into unlicensed devices. It then sought public comment on the test results. Progeny claimed the results showed little or no interference into unlicensed devices, but commercial users of those devices vehemently disagreed.

In response to an informal request from the FCC, Progeny has now conducted additional tests jointly with three major users of unlicensed equipment in the 902-928 MHz band: the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), whose members provide wireless Internet access, and Landis+Gyr and Itron, which both conduct automatic meter reading. (Links in the preceding sentence go to test reports filed with the FCC.)

As often happens in these cases, the parties disagree on how to interpret the data. 

Progeny reads the results as showing that its system “will not cause unacceptable levels of interference” to unlicensed users. But the three unlicensed users claim the results predict interference in several respects. They note, for example, that Progeny operates at much higher power than do unlicensed devices in the band; that multiple Progeny transmitters in the same area together occupy frequencies for 90-100% of the time; that the tests understated interference into meter reading equipment; and that Progeny’s signal degraded throughput on wireless Internet systems by 40-50%.

The FCC is now evaluating whether Progeny has met its non-interference obligation. Manufacturers and institutional users of devices in the 902-928 MHz band should take a close look at the test results, and should raise any concerns very promptly with the FCC.

Controversy Flares over Interference to Unlicensed Devices

Unlicensed device users at 902-928 MHz challenge LMS provider Progeny’s test results.

We reported back in February about a licensed service provider being required to demonstrate that its operation would not cause unacceptable interference to unlicensed devices. This is unusual. The FCC rules ordinarily require an unlicensed device to accept any and all interference from any source. But certain technologies used in the licensed Location and Monitoring Service (LMS) at 902-928 MHz are uniquely subject to a reversal of the usual priority. Those LMS licensees must demonstrate through actual field tests that their systems do not interfere with unlicensed devices.

When the FCC recently granted a technical waiver to LMS provider Progeny, it specifically required field tests to show that the waivered system does not cause unacceptable levels of interference to unlicensed devices in the same band. Among the thousands of unlicensed applications in the band, the FCC mentioned “smart grid” applications, including remote meter reading and utility load management, as well as cordless telephones and wireless local area networks. Other unlicensed uses of the band include wireless Internet access, ZigBee industrial controls, and a vast host of wireless consumer devices.

Progeny has since filed its test report. But commercial users of unlicensed devices have come forward to criticize the study. (Consumer devices, such as cordless phones, may have a similar potential for interference, but so far consumers and their advocates have remained silent.) Progeny, the commercial users say, used too few unlicensed devices, the devices Progeny used were non-representative, and the conditions used in the testing were artificially rigged to understate interference. Samples of such critical comments may be read here, here, and here. Progeny, needless to say, disagrees with its critics.  (Interested readers may find the entire FCC docket by searching for Docket No. 11-49 at the FCC’s ECFS webpage.)

Although the comment cycle on Progeny’s test report has officially closed, the FCC is accepting ex parte filings. But not for long; we expect a decision soon. Those interested in either challenging or supporting Progeny’s test results should do so promptly.

FCC Seeks Comment on Interference into Unlicensed Devices

Request for input follows grant of waiver to Location and Monitoring Service licensee that shares unlicensed band.

 The FCC has asked for comment on whether the licensed Location and Monitoring Service (LMS) at 902-928 MHz will cause interference to unlicensed devices in that band.

The request is startling, to those of us who work on spectrum issues. Part 15 of the FCC rules, which governs unlicensed devices, incorporates a fundamental tenet of U.S. spectrum policy: an unlicensed device must accept interference from any source, and may not cause harmful interference to any licensed service. Every unlicensed device bigger than a few inches carries a label saying just that. Why, then, is the FCC asking whether licensed LMS operations interfere with unlicensed use?

When the FCC adopted the current LMS rules in 1995, it estimated that several million Part 15 devices were using the 902-928 MHz band. The FCC mentioned the examples of cordless telephones, wireless local area networks, and automatic reading of utility meters. Recognizing the “enormous benefits” of those devices, the FCC added two provisions that remain unique in its rulebook. One specified that Part 15 devices meeting certain safe-harbor tests would be deemed not to cause harmful interference to certain LMS systems, even if they did in fact cause such interference. 

The other provision, of more immediate interest here, requires certain LMS systems to demonstrate through actual field tests that they do not cause “unacceptable levels of interference” to Part 15 devices.

The original service envisioned for LMS would enable fleet operators to pinpoint the locations of their vehicles around a city.  At the time of the 1995 LMS rules, GPS was still used mostly by the military, and presented no competition. But a technical change to the GPS system in 2000 made it more precise for civilian applications, and over the next few years the prices of GPS receivers dropped sharply. GPS became the technology of choice for vehicle location. LMS had lost its market.

LMS providers sought help from the FCC. In 2006, at the request of provider Progeny LMS, LLC, the FCC proposed extensive changes to the technical rules that would broaden the range of services possible under an LMS license. That proceeding, which raised alarm among Part 15 manufacturers and users, remains pending. In the meantime, Progeny sought a more limited waiver: to drop the requirement that an LMS system’s “primary” operations entail vehicle location (so that Progeny could track other kinds of assets), and to drop the requirement that three or more base stations be able to interrogate each mobile unit being tracked. Another LMS licensee opposed the waiver, while two companies that use Part 15 equipment asked for assurance that their operations would not suffer interference. Progeny responded that the changes it requested would, among other benefits, reduce the potential for interference to Part 15 users. 

The FCC granted the waiver last December, but imposed conditions. It required Progeny to file the details of its system design under the waiver, and to conduct field tests of interference to Part 15 devices.

Progeny has now made its system design and field tests public. It claims that most Part 15 devices will not be able to detect its signal, and even those that do will continue to operate normally. The FCC invites comments on these claims, due on March 15, 2012, with reply comments due on March 30.