When politics and tech collide, everyone loses

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.