Agriculture is in the thick of a fierce battle being waged before the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to pull the plug or at least modify a company’s effort to bolster its cellular network at the expense of the integrity of Global Positioning System (GPS) signals.

A company named LightSquared owns a satellite communications network but wants to get into the more popular and profitable land-based cellular business.

It has asked the FCC for a conditional waiver, so it could broadcast much more powerful land-based signals than it’s been doing for the past 15 years.

The problem, according to a coalition of GPS users called SaveOurGPS, is that the land-based communications towers could interfere with GPS. The signal that emanates from LightSquared towers, tests have shown, will degrade GPS signals to the point where a GPS user could not get a fix, according to Garmin spokesman Ted Gartner.

LightSquared plans to transmit ground-based radio signals that would be 1 billion or more times more powerful than GPS’s low-powered satellite-based signals, potentially causing severe interference impacting millions of GPS receivers — including those used by the federal agencies, state and local governments, first responders, airlines, mariners, civil engineers, construction and surveying companies, agriculture workers and everyday consumers in their cars and on handheld devices.

Garmin is one of more than 40 member associations or companies in the SaveOurGPS coalition. This includes all the major farm equipment manufacturers like Caterpillar, John Deere, and Case New Holland. The others in the coalition range from car rental agencies to UPS to several aviation associations.

The coalition says that the FCC issued its conditional waiver allowing LightSquared to build its network of towers without appropriate testing. LightSquared, for its part, says it certainly does not wish to interfere with GPS signals.

“We not only have to have a robust wireless broadband network, we have to have a robust GPS network. They both have to work,” said LightSquared Executive Vice President Jeff Carlisle.

This is not a chicken fight. It is a brawl. If agriculture and the coalition do not stop this effort it could set back a technology that a California farmer says is by comparison as significant as the development of the steam engine in the industrial revolution.

“The bottom line is that GPS technology is extremely important to California and American agriculture now and in the future,” says Cannon Michael, vice president of the 10,500-acre Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos, Calif., who is also the chairman of California Cotton Growers Association.

“GPS is a very valuable tool that we use on a daily basis on our farm. The use of GPS and variable rate technology tells such a good story for agriculture and shows that we are using technology to apply less pesticide in a more accurate way. Any degradation or disruption of this service would be devastating for the farmers in California and the nation,” said the sixth-generation farmer.

Bowles Farming is typical of many California and Arizona producers in using GPS on the farm in a variety of cost-saving operations.

“GPS tractor guidance is one of the most important uses and the benefits are easily understood and quantified,” said Michael. “I am sure this is the most widely adopted form of GPS use in agriculture. Being able to pull wide implements without any overlap is a huge savings in time and diesel.” Michael also pointed out that there is less dust and emissions because of this greater efficiency. There is also less fatigue for the tractor driver “since concentrating on driving straight is very taxing.”

Bowles has been using GPS yield monitoring technology in cotton for many years. “It helps us find locations in fields that are under performing. We can then go to these areas using GPS and determine what the problem is.”

Using GPS, GIS, imagery and yield monitoring, Michael can also identify areas of variability within fields. “GPS allows me to sample soil and tissue in areas of interest in my fields and come up with prescriptions on what each area needs.”

Variable rate technology (VRT) was quickly coupled with GPS mapping when it was introduced a decade ago for more precision in applying chemicals and fertilizers.

At Bowles Farming in Merced County, an application file can be emailed to an aerial applicator that he can then insert in the rate controller of his plane. “He sees the field I want applied on his controller and flies to it using GPS,” explained Michael.

The file also contains data that tells the controller where Michael wants to spray and how much volume to be applied at those locations.

“The pilot just flies the plane over the field and the controller opens valves at the locations I want sprayed. This would not be possible without GPS,” he said.

Bowles gets back a file showing the aerial applicator’s flight pattern showing where he sprayed and how much he put out at each location.

“This record is valuable and could be used to solve disputes or for claims if there was a report of damage from one of our applications. This technique puts the material exactly where it should go and results in less chemicals being used. We use variable rate by air for many PIX applications in cotton every year,” Michael explained.