LightSquared Faces More Congressional Scrutiny

LightSquared Faces More Congressional Scrutiny

The controversy over LightSquared is far from over. Another congressional hearing is scheduled for next week about that company’s plans to implement a mobile broadband system that critics assert will interfere with reception of GPS signals. At the same time, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee continues to demand reports from certain federal agencies about the impact of LightSquared on their operations.

Next week’s hearing is by the House Small Business Committee. It will feature witnesses representing the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Agriculture Retailers Association, and the Aircraft Electronics Association.

LightSquared is facing opponents from many quarters because it is using spectrum that is next to that used for signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS) of navigation satellites. The GPS system is owned and operated by the Department of Defense (DOD), but GPS receivers are ubiquitous throughout American (and global) society. Not only is GPS embedded in many smartphones and installed in automobiles and aircraft, but it is the foundation of precision agriculture and myriad other applications.

The frequency bands assigned to LightSquared originally were intended for satellites — and LightSquared’s system does include a satellite, SkyTerra — but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) permitted the addition of an Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC). That means LightSquared also can use terrestrial cell towers for its system, and plans to build about 4,000 of them nationwide. It is the terrestrial component that is causing distress.

LightSquared argues that it has been developing this system for many years and, in response to concerns raised throughout that process, has ensured that its transmissions will not interfere with GPS. At a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing in September, a LightSquared official asked rhetorically why these new concerns are being raised only now. The company asserts that it is the GPS receiver manufacturers who have not properly designed their receivers who are at fault, not LightSquared.

Although the debate does have a technical component, it increasingly is drifting into the political realm. Philip Falcone, a major financial backer of LightSquared, charged in a September 19 interview with Fox News that competitors were fueling the controversy now that it appears that LightSquared will succeed.

The involvement of President Barack Obama in LightSquared has become the most recent lightning rod in the debate. According to the Fox News segment, in 2005-2006, Mr. Obama invested “up to $90,000” in the company that is now known as LightSquared. Falcone said in the interview that Obama sold his shares later, but did not indicate when. LightSquared critics allege that the Obama Administration is giving favorable treatment to LightSquared. Raising the stakes, Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, asserted that Gen. William Shelton told subcommittee members in private that the White House tried to force him to change his September 15 testimony to the subcommittee to make it more favorable towards LightSquared. Shelton is commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command.

Rep. Turner has called for an investigation. In addition, following its own hearing into the matter, Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee wrote a letter to two White House offices requesting documents related to the impact of LightSquared on the science activities of various federal agencies. Yesterday, the committee issued another press release criticizing some agencies for not providing that information to the committee. It also released information that other agencies did provide.

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