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Summary:

The political drama around the Obama administration’s efforts to bring a competitive wireless broadband alternative to the nation are roiled in a technical and now a political debate. The drama centers around LightSquared, and whether or not the White House influenced testimony from a four-star general.

Will LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja have any network left to run?

LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja

The political drama around the Obama administration’s efforts to bring a competitive wireless broadband alternative to the nation are roiled in both technical and now a political debate. The drama centers around LightSquared, which is trying to build a wholesale satellite and terrestrial 4G network, but has run into problems because the spectrum it uses can interfere with GPS signals.

And now Republicans are accusing the White House with interference as well, notably for changing the testimony from a general about how LightSquared’s network would affect GPS signals, according to an article in The Daily Beast. The paper reported Gen. William Shelton, a four-star Air Force general who oversees Air Force Space Command, who was testifying about the GPS interference issue was asked to change his testimony. From The Daily Beast:

According to officials familiar with the situation, Shelton’s prepared testimony was leaked in advance to the company. And the White House asked the general to alter the testimony to add two points: that the general supported the White House policy to add more broadband for commercial use; and that the Pentagon would try to resolve the questions around LightSquared with testing in just 90 days. Shelton chafed at the intervention, which seemed to soften the Pentagon’s position and might be viewed as helping the company as it tries to get the project launched, officials said.

Since LightSquared’s primary backer, Harbinger Capital Partners, is owned by a Democratic donor, lawmakers are now insinuating that the Obama administration is playing favorites. They are, but I’m not sure it’s to appease a political donor, but because the administration and the FCC are so desperate to promote competition for U.S. broadband. That’s why the FCC has been granting waiver upon waiver for LightSquared, even as the company’s spectrum became suddenly (and surprisingly) problematic because of the GPS interference. That interference, by the way, is a result of the GPS industry not shielding its radios enough, rather than anything LightSquared is doing. However, since there are billions of GPS devices out there, the location technology has achieved a sort of squatters’ right that puts LightSquared on the position of having to adapt.

I have plenty of doubts about LightSquared’s viability, although the most recent FCC waiver that allows it to deliver most of its traffic over terrestrial networks, rather than the slower and more expensive satellite network, does a lot to boost its likelihood of success. However, the company’s problems are a perfect example of how challenging it is to develop spectrum policy. The company that became LightSquared actually won approval for using the spectrum for satellite and terrestrial broadband all the way back in 2004 under the Bush Administration, but it was only recently as the network came together that the GPS issues came to light.

And now, instead of recognizing that a viable wholesale 4G network might be a great alternative in a consolidating mobile telecom sector, Republicans are using LightSquared as a bludgeon to beat the Obama administration for cronyism. Republicans and Democrats would do better to quit looking for scapegoats and start working on the real problems with this deal: We need more broadband competition in this country, and we need to figure out how to handle unexpected issues arising from complicated technologies such as spectrum in a fair manner.

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  1. Excuse me, but LEAKING TESTIMONY and then asking the General to change the testimony is a big deal. This isn’t about Republicans. Who else got a hold of his testimony? Sounds criminal and not because Republicans are pointing out the problem.

  2. Darnell Clayton Friday, September 16, 2011

    Huh? How did GigaOm miss the main point regarding the controversy? It has little to do with the technology being implemented (or at least attempted to be implemented) in order to ease the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans.

    The controversy is about pressuring a general (let a lone a government official) to alter their testimony. It doesn’t matter if it’s because the donor behind the company is Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or just another hipster. It reeks of corruption and NEEDS to be dealt with. There is nothing partisan about that.

  3. This isn’t a party issue but a moral one. Leaking a testimony is wrong. But instead of holding the guilty accountable, once again Republicans and Democrats are pointing the finger at each other. Once again, they would rather prove each other wrong than do what’s right for truth and for the American people.

  4. I’ve noticed that when it’s the Democrats who are accused of corruption, liberal journalists always go with the “let’s not turn this into partisan mud flinging and focus on moving forward” angle, whereas Republican corruption always warrants a “ZOMG these evil conservatives are trying to destroy America for the benefit of their cronies in the military-industrial complex” type response.

    Let’s cut the crap. This is a disgraceful indictment of the current administration and would be no matter who was in the White House.

  5. This smells and if proven, would point to more disgraceful behavior on the part of the white house..I can’t say that I’m surprised at this point…

  6. To say that ” is a result of the GPS industry not shielding its radios enough, rather than anything LightSquared is doing” is incorrect. There are a whole category of precision GPS users for whom no amount of shielding would have helped because they need the full bandwidth of the navigation signal.

    I would suggest the author take a read through the testimony of Dr. Scott Pace on this issue. He clearly outlines the history of LightSquared along with the technical and policy issues:
    http://science.house.gov/sites/republicans.science.house.gov/files/documents/hearings/0908011_Pace.pdf

    What it comes down to is a company that acquired the rights to spectrum originally set aside for satellites and then used a waiver to turn it into spectrum used for a massive ground broadband network. This allowed them to bypass the normal process of bidding (and paying billions) for spectrum.

    Yes, they won original approval for a waiver in 2004 to do this, but recently sneaked in another waiver the greatly boosted the power of their ground stations. This is the key problem.

    As Dr. Pace points out, allowing LightSquared to proceed as planned would go against both President Obama’s National Space Policy and National Broadband Policy.

  7. I agree with Alz, this isn’t about politics vs technology way to deflect attention away from the real issue. BTW, General when referring to the rank of a person is ALWAYS captilized! (2nd paragraph, 1st sentence). Shameful proofreading but it matches the fact checking.

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