October 13, 2011

Faced with increasing scrutiny of its claims about the impact of its technology, and allegations of political impropriety, telecommunications provider (FCC) LightSquared has gone on the offensive against the GPS industry. In an October 3 letter to Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, LightSquared executive Jeffrey Carlisle asserts his company has the law on its side in stating the burden falls on GPS manufacturers to shield their devices from interference from LightSquared’s proposed 4G broadband network.

“[Q]uestions have been raised as to whether there is a legal basis for statements by LightSquared ‘that GPS manufacturers have ignored government standards in the development of receivers,'” the letter reads. “Although no law mandates how GPS receivers are built, there are established standards governing whether and under what circumstances interference protection may be sought for GPS receivers. The GPS manufacturers’ interference claims are inconsistent with these standards.”

Review the full letter from LightSquared’s Carlisle.

Carlisle, LightSquared’s Executive VP for Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy, cites as precedence the minimum standards for commercial GPS receivers, as established by the Department of Defense. One of those standards specifies GPS manufacturers must use a “sharp cut-off filter” to block any signals that may bleed onto the GPS frequency from adjacent spectrums. LightSquared asserts that standard includes the powerful signals that would be transmitted on the L-band by its proposed ground-based tower network.

“DoD [the Department of Defense] put GPS manufacturers on notice, therefore, that unless they employed sharp cut-off filters their devices might not function properly in the presence of transmissions in LightSquared’s band,” the letter continues. “Notwithstanding this notice, the manufacturers chose to make GPS devices that do not employ sharp cut-off filters.”

Carlisle adds that GPS manufacturers are aware of the possibility of interference with their devices, noting that user manuals for several popular Garmin GPS receivers warn customers “this device must accept any interference received, including interference that may cause undesired operation.” What LightSquared doesn’t mention, however, is whether or not rule makers considered the possibility of the kind of powerful interference presented by LightSquared’s transmitters when that regulation was made.

In a September 15 hearing before a House Armed Services subcommittee, General William L. Shelton, Commander, U.S. Air Force Space Command, described the deliberate effort to shield GPS from intrusive signals when the original positioning technology was launched over 25 years ago. “GPS receivers were quite purposefully designed to operate in a portion of the radio frequency spectrum deliberately maintained as a “quiet neighborhood,” with neighboring frequencies primarily occupied by signals of comparable power levels, all based on the widely accepted understanding of previous FCC rules and intent,” General Shelton testified. “The proposed LightSquared transmitters will produce received signal strengths five billion times stronger than the GPS received signal.”

Questions Raised Over Pressure from Obama Administration

LightSquared’s appeal to the FCC follows weeks of increasingly harsh scrutiny from lawmakers. Immediately following General Shelton’s comments at the September 15 hearing, news surfaced that Shelton alleged during an earlier, closed-door session that White House officials pressured him to include statements in support of LightSquared at the hearing. The politically-charged allegation came two weeks after another technology start-up company, California-based solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, filed for bankruptcy despite an infusion of $535 million in federal funds from the administration.

On October 5, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) issued a call for LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja and Harbinger Capital Funds Senior Managing Director Philip Falcone, the primary financial backer for the company, to immediately hand over “[a]ll communications between LightSquared and the FCC, White House, or Department of Commerce,” as well as “[a]ll communications between firms or individuals retained by LightSquared to represent LightSquared as lobbyists.”

Review the full letter from Senator Grasley.

“If LightSquared has nothing to hide and would like to put questions of improper influence at the FCC, Department of Commerce, and White House to rest, the public release of these communications would allow Congress and the American people to fully examine the facts and decide for themselves,” Grassley wrote.

The Senator also questioned LightSquared’s statements on other issues, including claims its broadband network would provide wireless access to isolated rural areas – despite no clear mandate from the FCC for it to do so – as well as seemingly contradictory statements about how long LightSquared has actually been in business.

The FCC has set a revised deadline of November 30 to determine whether LightSquared may proceed with its plans.