Editorial | The LightSquared Controversy Goes Political

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U.S. lawmakers looking to make political hay out of the LightSquared controversy are jeopardizing the company’s chances for a fair hearing as it seeks to mitigate the GPS signal interference problem posed by its proposed satellite-terrestrial broadband network.

House Republicans charge that LightSquared curried favor with the White House and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) through cash donations to the Democratic Party. The FCC approved LightSquared’s system in 2003 and has since relaxed some of the conditions originally imposed in the company’s operating license.

During a Sept. 15 hearing, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, drew a parallel between LightSquared and Solyndra, the failed solar-energy company with ties to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. “We cannot afford to have federal telecommunications policy, especially where it affects national security, to be made in the same way that the White House parceled out a half billion dollars in loan guarantees to the failed Solyndra Corporation, a large political campaign contributor of the President,” Rep. Turner said in his opening statement.

That same day, The Daily Beast website quoted Rep. Turner — accurately, according to his office — as saying a key witness at the hearing, Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, had been pressured by the White House to soften his testimony on the GPS interference issue.

Rep. Turner has referred the matter to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for an investigation.

Seven Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee piled on Sept. 20, demanding that the White House turn over all correspondence having to do with LightSquared or affiliated companies. The committee, which recently held a hearing to assess the impact of GPS interference on science activities, cited two instances in which LightSquared representatives sought meetings with White House officials at about the same time company executives made big donations to the Democrats. “While some may call it a coincidence, we remain skeptical that shortly after two separate sets of meetings and meeting requests one year apart, LightSquared employees made five-figure donations to the Democratic Party,” they said.

What the lawmakers are not saying, despite the fact that the information is readily available, is that LightSquared is at minimum an equal-opportunity donor; its executives have given generously to both major U.S. political parties. This is a common practice by which businesses effectively hedge their political bets.

For example, just one month after LightSquared Chief Executive Sanjiv Ahuja made one of the donations cited by lawmakers, $30,400 to the Democratic National Committee, he gave the same amount to the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Philip Falcone, whose Harbinger Capital Partners investment fund is majority owner of LightSquared and who has been portrayed as a big Democratic donor, is a registered Republican. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political contributions, Mr. Falcone has given more money to Republicans than to Democrats in recent election cycles.

The larger point is that there’s nothing remotely unusual about political donors seeking time with decision-makers. Like it or not, American politics is awash with corporate cash; Democrats and Republicans play the money-for-access game with equal vigor. To suggest that the interplay between LightSquared, money and the Obama administration is outside U.S. political norm is either naïve or, more likely, disingenuous.

It’s true that the FCC has been unusually accommodating to LightSquared. But the FCC’s policy of encouraging deployment of a nationwide commercial broadband network consisting of satellites and ground-based signal repeaters dates back to the administration of former President George W. Bush; Rep. Turner himself noted during the hearing that the policy was a bipartisan one.

The FCC’s most controversial move was its January waiver allowing LightSquared to offer a terrestrial-only version of its service. This mode of operation not only posed unacceptable GPS interference, it cut against the FCC’s rationale for encouraging LightSquared and companies planning similar networks: Satellites can keep emergency personnel connected when disasters disable ground-based networks. But as FCC and other government officials repeatedly pointed out during the Sept. 15 hearing, the waiver is conditional: LightSquared will not be allowed to move forward until the GPS interference problem is solved.

Extensive testing has left no doubt whatsoever that LightSquared’s network would cause unacceptable interference to both military and civilian GPS applications. What remains in question is whether the company’s newest operating plan — it has proposed to transmit at lower power levels and in frequencies not immediately adjacent to the GPS band — holds promise of resolving the issue. During the hearing, government officials, including Gen. Shelton, said more testing will be necessary.

But politics now threatens to skew the government’s evaluation and decision-making process. This type of situation has precedent in the space industry. In 1998, Congress, amid politically charged allegations that China was benefiting militarily from then-President Bill Clinton’s policy of allowing Chinese rockets to launch U.S. commercial telecommunications satellites, cracked down on space-related exports, passing a law that effectively reclassified even the most pedestrian space technology as weaponry. The space industry — and not just in the United States — continues to suffer under this ill-advised regulatory shift, which has proved all but impossible to reverse.

Given the severity of the interference issue uncovered in testing to date, LightSquared, which has invested some $3 billion and has one satellite in orbit, likely faces a steep uphill battle winning final FCC operating approval. Lawmakers, having already made their point, should get out of the way and let the experts judge LightSquared’s latest plan — however questionable it might appear to skeptics — based on its technical merit, not politics.