LightSquared Chief Dismisses Allegations of Political Favoritism

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PARIS — LightSquared Chairman and Chief Executive Sanjiv Ahuja dismissed as “ludicrous” allegations that the company, which plans to deploy a satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband network serving North America, received favorable treatment from U.S. telecommunications regulators because of its political connections.

The allegations surfaced during a Sept. 15 House Armed Services Committee hearing in which Republican lawmakers suggested LightSquared’s political ties led the U.S. Federal Communications System (FCC) to approve the company’s system despite the interference threat it poses to GPS satellite navigation signals.

“I have never seen an agency advocate something so strongly … unless it’s from above or there’s a relationship that’s not being disclosed,” Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) said. “The fact that we’re here is ridiculous.”

Scott asked FCC engineering chief Julius Knapp if such a relationship existed, but Knapp did not acknowledge any political ties to LightSquared.

The witnesses at the hearing included Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, and several other U.S. government officials. In a statement issued Sept. 15 after the hearing, Ahuja noted that LightSquared was not invited to testify.

“It’s difficult to charge that LightSquared has undue political influence when it was denied the opportunity to testify at today’s hearing of the House Armed Service Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee — or even be allowed a one-on-one meeting with the chairman of that committee prior to the hearing, as the GPS industry was given,” Ahuja said.

LightSquared and its plans to deploy a so-called hybrid broadband network featuring satellites and some 40,000 ground-based repeaters came under fire in June after extensive testing by a technical working group showed that the system would interfere with a slew of GPS civilian applications ranging from public safety to aviation to precision agriculture. In the wake of that report, the company offered to mitigate the interference issue by transmitting at lower power than previously planned and by initially using frequencies that are not immediately adjacent to those used by GPS satellites and receiver equipment.

But the GPS industry, including both the manufacturers and users of GPS equipment, has not been mollified. Nor have lawmakers, who along with government witnesses at the hearing called for more testing of LightSquared’s revised plan.

Charges that the FCC has been too accommodating to LightSquared stem in part from the fact that the agency granted several waivers to the company’s operating license that some GPS advocates believe exacerbated the GPS signal interference issue. For example, the FCC granted the company’s requests to increase its transmission power levels and to allow it to offer a terrestrial-only version of its service.

The FCC granted LightSquared access to a wide block of L-band spectrum free of charge — cellular firms have had to pay for spectrum at auction — on the condition that satellite connectivity be an integral network component rather than an adjunct. The idea was to encourage industry to deploy a network that could keep emergency personnel connected even if disaster disabled terrestrial networks.

One lawmaker accused LightSquared of abusing its FCC license by seeking to operate a terrestrial service using spectrum set aside for other purposes. In a press release issued Sept. 15, Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee, said he wrote Ahuja in response to a LightSquared newspaper ad that the lawmaker said inappropriately blamed the GPS industry for the interference issue.

“I would suggest that it is LightSquared using a part of the spectrum for inappropriate purposes that has led to this dilemma,” Petri wrote, according to the press release.

In his statement, Ahuja said “special interests” were trying to draw attention away from the facts and noted that LightSquared received its initial regulatory approvals under FCC chairmen appointed by the administration of former President George W. Bush.

“Regulators from both parties understand LightSquared’s approach will create more competition in the marketplace, put downward pressure on the prices paid by consumers, create good paying jobs in the tech sector, and give Americans access to the most modern cellular technology,” Ahuja said. “LightSquared’s plan has drawn bipartisan support because it’s right for the country.”

Ahuja further noted that LightSquared has made political donations to both major U.S. political parties and that of the contributions made by LightSquared’s founder — who was not named in the statement — two-thirds have gone to Republicans.