SAN FRANCISCO — The political controversy over alleged ties between the White House and a company seeking U.S. government approval for a satellite-terrestrial broadband network serving North America widened Sept. 22, as Republican lawmakers called for a formal probe of the matter.
In a letter to senior members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, five Republicans on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee expressed support for an “aggressive investigation” into whyreceived regulatory approvals from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) despite well-document concerns that its planned network would interfere with GPS applications, including national security.
Meanwhile, seven Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee sent twin letters to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Management and Budget Sept. 20 demanding documents relating to any actions taken by President Barack Obama’s administration in support of LightSquared’s proposed network.
The letters from both panels suggested the FCC’s decision-making process was influenced by donations from LightSquared executives to the Democratic Party.
Similar allegations surfaced during a Sept. 15 hearing of the strategic forces subcommittee, whose chairman has accused the White House of tampering with the testimony of a key witness.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations, LightSquared executives have contributed to both major U.S. political parties. For example, Sanjiv Ahuja, LightSquared’s chairman and chief executive, gave $30,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in October 2010 and $30,400 to the Democratic National Committee in September 2010. Philip Falcone, whose hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners has invested approximately $3 billion in the LightSquared project, gave $78,900 to the Democratic Senatorial Committee in 2008 and 2009. During those same years, Falcone and his wife, Lisa Marie Falcone, gave $67,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $40,000 to Minnesota’s Republican Party, according to the center.
LightSquared has been the subject of intense scrutiny since June, when tests showed that its proposed network, consisting of satellites and some 40,000 ground stations, would interfere with GPS signals. To mollify those concerns, LightSquared offered to transmit signals at lower power levels than previously planned and to begin offering service using frequencies that are not immediately adjacent to those used by GPS devices.
This has done little to appease the GPS community, which says even if the new plan reduces or eliminates interference to standard GPS receivers, those used in scientific and technical applications would still be affected. Such receivers are used for applications ranging from weather forecasting to emergency response.
Reston, Va.-based LightSquared announced Sept. 21 it had found a way to prevent its proposed network from interfering with precision GPS devices. LightSquared is working with Javad GNSS Inc. of San Jose, Calif., to develop technology that the companies say will enable GPS receivers to filter out the LightSquared signal.
Javad Ashjaee, founder of Javad GNSS, said in a Sept. 21 email that making GPS receivers compatible with the LightSquared network “will add no more than $50 to the cost of a receiver” and may not raise the price of a receiver at all.
Meanwhile, U.S. government officials continued to express doubts about LightSquared’s ability to coexist with GPS. Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, reiterated his concerns about the network in a statement released Sept. 21.
“What needs to be emphasized here is that life as Americans know it today relies on the critical precision positioning navigation and timing services GPS provides,” Shelton said. “Agriculture, banking, transportation, weather, national defense — all proved to be significantly impacted by the interference we found through our testing to date of the LightSquared network proposal. Protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure is the focus we should have on this issue.”
Shelton was a key witness at the Sept. 15 strategic forces subcommittee hearing. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s chairman, told the news and opinion website The Daily Beast that Shelton was pressured by White House officials to modify his testimony to soften his stance on the GPS interference issue.
Shelton declined to address that specific allegation, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Christina Sukach said in a Sept. 21 email.
A spokesman for Turner said The Daily Beast quoted the lawmaker accurately and that Shelton discussed White House pressure to modify his testimony “in a classified briefing in front of committee staff and other members of Congress.”
Shelton’s comments were made in response to “a direct question from Chairman Turner a week prior to the hearing,” Thomas Crosson, Turner’s press secretary, said in a Sept. 20 email. “As Chairman Turner’s subcommittee is jurisdictionally responsible for only a portion of this matter, he referred it to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for further investigation.”
Turner is among the senior members of that committee.