The battle over whether or not a cellular network planned by startup LightSquared interferes with GPS receivers has now entered the political realm, with Republican members of Congress charging that the Obama administration has intervened to aid the company, backed by billionaire Philip Falcone, a major contributor to Democratic campaign coffers.
This spring a series of tests conducted by LightSquared, the GPS industry and a federal agency technical working group showed that the planned LightSquared cellular system interfered with GPS receivers, particularly when the network was using the upper portion of its spectrum closest to the GPS band. In June, the company floated a new plan to initially deploy its network using only the lower portion of its spectrum, which is further away from the GPS band. Such a move would require additional tests focused on highly precise receivers used by the military, aviation, surveying and agricultural industries.
LightSquared said its can develop filters to prevent interference between its system and high-precision GPS receivers. But Gen. William Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee panel hearing last Thursday that this would require retrofitting more than 1 million military GPS receivers, a process that would cost billions of dollars and take a decade to accomplish.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration put the new round of tests on a fast track, with plans to finish them in just under 90 days, or by Nov. 30, according to a Sept. 9 letter NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling sent to top officials at the Defense and Transportation departments. But, in that letter, Strickling said NTIA wants to conduct those tests "without waiting for the interference issues to be resolved relating to high-precision and timing receivers."
Instead, Strickling said, NTIA wants to "move forward to reach resolution of any remaining federal agency concerns with respect to the cellular and personal/general navigation receivers."
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said he viewed this language for a fast-track test schedule as favoring LightSquared and indicative of administration interference in the process. Brandishing a copy of the letter at the hearing, Scott said, "I've been in politics 14 years, and I have never seen an agency so strongly advocate for something like this unless there was pressure from above."
Scott added that the letter strongly favored LightSquared and indicated a political relationship that was not being disclosed. He asked Karl Nebbia, NTIA associate administrator for spectrum management, why his agency was advocating for a private company instead of protecting vital spectrum that numerous federal agencies use from interference.
Nebbia said NTIA was working with both sides to resolve the interference problems. "All we're trying to do is move the ball forward," he told Scott.
Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee told Nextgov that NTIA should not rush its tests. "It is absolutely clear that GPS infrastructure is vital to our safety, economy and national defense, and that GPS infrastructure must not be compromised. I do not know whether political pressure is being applied to rush approval of LightSquared's plans, but I do know the risks of rushing are considerable. Such an important safety issue requires considerable scrutiny and careful consideration. I will be perfectly happy if LightSquared can demonstrate that it can operate without degrading GPS signals and without imposing new safety or cost impacts on GPS users. The studies should take as long as is necessary to settle the issue properly."
Anthony Russo, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing, told the Daily Beast on Tuesday that the Office of Management and Budget provided him with guidance to change his testimony at last week's hearing to say that a new round of testing on LightSquared interference with GPS could be finished in 90 days. Russo said he rejected that suggestion, as he believed the new tests would take at least six months.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee said the National Legal and Policy Center told the chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that, "over the course of the past year, a series of odd decisions, questionable meetings and procedural anomalies at the Federal Communications Commission and White House highlight Mr. Falcone's growing influence in the hallways of government." Falcone is chief executive of Harbinger Capital Partners, the hedge fund that finances LightSquared.
Turner said he plans to ask the House Oversight Committee to investigate the role of the White House as an advocate for LightSquared and any connection to campaign contributions.