This article was updated at 9:30 PM.
While the unfolding Solyndra scandal is untearthing ties between the White House and the bankrupt solar panel manufacturing company, Republican lawmakers are calling for investigations into yet another high-tech company.
Ohio Rep. Michael Turner filed a request to the House Oversight Committee Monday to open up an investigation into LightSquared — a wireless 4G company with a controversial proposal to build a nationwide broadband network — and their ties to the Obama White House.
At a hearing last week investigating the implications of LightSquared’s bid, Turner, who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, urged his colleagues to investigate whether the company had improperly leveraged political donations to gain White House support.
“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,” Turner said.
The impact of LightSquared’s proposal, however, goes beyond purely military concerns. LightSquared has owned a wide swatch of spectrum — a rare resource by which data and voice calls are transmitted through the air — since 2001. They have proposed to use this spectrum to build out a wholesale cell phone network that could be used to access high-speed Internet through a combination of land and satellite transmitters.
Though the FCC conditionally approved LightSquared’s proposal in January, seeing it as a mechanism to help the Obama Administration reach its goal of providing Americans quality Internet access, concerns arose after multiple government agencies found that LightSquared’s signals drowned out Global Positioning System (GPS) signals.
A navigation system that accurately pinpoints a location anywhere on Earth, GPS is a key component in today’s technology and is used in everything from mobile telecommunications to air travel, agriculture, fishing and military applications. Due to regulations requiring companies to keep track of their phones, GPS receivers are also built into smartphones and provide the backbone for multiple smartphone applications, from Maps to Yelp!.
Recent reports and test results from a number of government agencies have found that if built, LightSquared signals, which occupy spectrum extremely close to the bandwidth used by GPS and, as they would be five billion times stronger than the GPS signal, would effectively drown it out.
Despite looming concerns over LightSquared’s interference with the millions of GPS signals shared by multiple government agencies from the FAA to the Department of Transportation, recent reports from media organizations depict the company lobbying the White House intensely for the deal to go through. The White House is seemingly complying.
One of the majority shareholders of LightSquared, Philip Falcone, is a major Democratic donor whose giving patterns in the past few years have skewed heavily leftward. In an ongoing investigation into the company, the Center for Public Integrity has revealed the extent of Democratic ties in the company, as well as records of lobbying efforts timely coinciding with large political donations from the company.
On the day of the hearing, The Daily Beast released a story saying that the White House’s Office of Management and Budget had tried to pressure Gen. William Shelton, head of US Air Force Space Command, to downplay his concerns over LightSquared’s GPS interference, despite he and the Department of Defense previously recommending against it.
Though the White House requested that Shelton state his support of national broadband access, as well as promise that the Pentagon would resolve issues surrounding a retest of the LightSquared system in 90 days, Shelton eventually stuck with his original testimony. “Based on the test results and analysis to date, the LightSquared network would effectively jam vital GPS receivers,” he told the committee on Thursday. “And to our knowledge thus far, there are no mitigation options that would be effective in eliminating interference to essential GPS services in the United States.”
That the FCC had expedited LightSquared’s review despite concerns over GPS had Rep. Austin Scott concerned. “In my 14 years in politics, I have never seen a federal agency advocate so strongly for a private company to go through,” he stated during the hearing, “especially when the Department of Defense is saying this [plan] interferes with national security.”
LightSquared, which was not invited to the hearing, has expressed a willingness to work with federal agencies in order to build a robust nationwide broadband network. At the same time, according to its CEO Sanjiv Ahuja, current users of GPS are simply “squatting” on bandwidth properly owned by the company. “Some companies are loath to make the necessary engineering changes,” he responded, “and would instead prefer to get access to someone else’s spectrum for free.”
He also dismissed claims of improper political leverage as “ludicrous,” pointing out that he had donated equally to both Democrats and Republicans in the past election cycle.
Falcone himself took particular offense to these allegations, going on America Live with Megyn Kelly today to rebut these claims.
“[LightSquared’s proposal] has been going on for years and it is only until recently, until people perceived that we had become a commercially viable project is when people started voicing their opinions and negativity about GPS,” he stated adamantly. “This is not anything new. And this has become a real political issue because of that unfortunately.”
He also denied using donations as a way to influence the Obama administration — “I’ve never met the President,” he said, adding that he was a registered Republican.
Falcone justified his lobbying actions as “a function of me trying to deploy a network, to build out a plan and the FCC has been so challenging as it relates to what we are trying to doing here.”
“We’ve taken the step forward to fix these issues,” he clafiried, reiterating his willingness to cooperate with federal agencies and industries dependent on GPS. “These fixes are technology issues. It’s not a physics issue.”