Wannabe network operator LightSquared is under attack from Republicans who have asked for an investigation into whether the White House pressured its Air Force Space Commander into changing his testimony on possible GPS interference caused by LightSquared's activities.
The accusation is fiercely denied by LightSquared and the White House. The ever-impartial Fox News points out that LightSquared's founder is a "major Democratic donor" in this video report:
Republicans claim that General William Shelton was asked to downplay possible GPS interference caused by LightSquared, in order to allay the concerns that have already forced LightSquared into deploying in a lower band, and reduce the transmission power.
Those measures have become necessary because LightSquared's mad-as-a-box-of-frogs plan is to run a ground network in frequencies formerly reserved for satellite phones. LightSquared picked up the frequency range on the cheap, then got the FCC to remove the restrictions, and more recently signed a deal with Sprint that could actually see the network being built. This has quite a few people properly worried.
Even with the mitigation, the most-sensitive GPS receivers will (it seems) still pick up the LightSquared signal as their radios can't ignore the more-powerful neighbouring transmission. There's also the fact that the mitigation is only temporary: LightSquared expects technology to magic the problem away in the medium term.
Given that the original tests were done at the higher power, and in a different band, it's hardly surprisingly that last week the FCC asked for more testing. That testing means LightSquared is unlikely to get the all-clear for its national network this year, which puts it under considerable financial strain.
But it is the political strain that is new, and the implication that he might be a Democrat seemingly stinging company founder Philip Falcone the most.
"The founder of LightSquared has given to candidates in both political parties in the last eight years, with two-thirds of his contributions going to Republicans because of the founder’s free market philosophy," we were told in a statement, which continues (with an interesting change of pronoun), "I gave $30,400 in contributions to both parties in late 2010."
That's presumably in addition to the $60,800 which was donated to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee by Philip and his wife (each chipping in $30,400) in September 2009, though to be fair the pair ponied up $10,000 a piece to the Republicans (in Minnesota) in June of the same year.
But the question isn't whether the Falcones give lots of money to political parties – they clearly do – but rather whether that money was used to buy political influence, and if that political influence led to Shelton being asked to go easy on LightSquared.
The company points out that it wasn't present at the hearing, and didn't even get to address the chairman, and that its inability to wangle an invite demonstrates its lack of political influence.
Meanwhile the company produced this jingoistic video, which shows how those evil GPS manufacturers are plotting against it:
LightSquared is using every means possible to convey to US politicians, and the public, what it thinks are the advantages of its plan. Meanwhile the GPS crowd is doing the same thing with its own lobbying, videos and an alarmist website. It is equally obvious that LightSquared can't be allowed to deploy a network across America if that's going to knock out the domestic, and commercial, GPS kit on which so many people rely.
The FCC has agreed, in principle, to the plan, so official US policy is that if the GPS interference can be resolved then LightSquared gets the go-ahead. That policy would have been communicated to four-star General Shelton by the White House, as per the official Department of Defence guidelines and pointed out by Media Matters.
But when such debates get turned into political footballs, to be tossed between Republican and Democrat, then supporting either side becomes a political, rather than a technical, decision. One can't help feeling that it would be sad to see the future safety and competitiveness of US wireless being decided by politicians, regardless of which side they're on. ®