Today’s hearing of the House Armed Services Committee confirmed that LightSquared is likely to become a major scandal for the Obama administration in the run up to next year’s Presidential election and it won’t be long before people are chewing their own arm off to escape from this looming debacle (didn’t someone make a film about that?). In particular, the FCC Chairman refused to attend the hearing, in what was described as an “affront to the Committee” by the Republican congressman running the hearing. Rep. Turner also stated that he would be taking up LightSquared matter through the House Oversight Committee, of which he is also a member.
UPDATE: The Republicans are going to make even more of this when they realize that (as the Wall St Journal reported last November) Soros Fund Management is also a “significant investor” in Harbinger/LightSquared. In the meantime, LightSquared’s CEO is defending the company by stating that it “has never taken one dollar in taxpayer money”, apparently forgetting Mr Carlisle’s testimony to Congress that LightSquared has received over $2M from the FBI for providing satellite services and equipment in the current fiscal year, not to mention its own estimate that the January 2011 FCC waiver was worth over $10 billion in incremental spectrum value to the company. And did he really just say that they will only be investing $8B rather than the $14B number they have used previously?
The FCC Chairman’s refusal to attend the hearing comes in the wake of allegations that the White House pressured Gen. Shelton to change his testimony to the Committee, and while Sen. Grassley is still pursuing the FCC Chairman for details of FCC communications with and about LightSquared in the run up to approval of the January 2011 waiver. My guess is that there must have been some reason for LightSquared to submit its waiver request on the Thursday before Thanksgiving and it would be reasonable to assume that they must therefore have been told by the FCC that the application would be placed immediately on public notice with an accelerated (10 day) comment period over the holiday, in the hope that no-one would notice. If that was the case then it would be quite surprising if there was no email evidence of such communications.
In the hearing itself, Gen. Shelton could not have been more explicit in his statements that there was no way to solve the LightSquared interference issues, even with LightSquared’s new filter proposal. He noted the enormous costs and the time needed for integration testing of any potential solution across the full range of military devices (he estimated there are at least a million devices deployed and it would take billions of dollars and a decade or more to fix the problem), and stated that even then he believed the precision of these devices would be affected.
LightSquared has now said that, in conjunction with an unnamed GPS manufacturer, it has developed a prototype device that will be announced next week and can “help prove that GPS and LightSquared can coexist”. Ironically of course, GPS manufacturers have been the target of a vitriolic assault by LightSquared for their supposed lack of cooperation in trying to find a solution to the interference problems.
UPDATE (9/21): LightSquared has now announced that its prototype has been developed by JavadGNSS, who claim that they will produce a “LightSquared-protected” solution by November 2011, a “LightSquared-compensated” solution by March 2012 and a “LightSquared-integrated” solution by June 2012. It remains unclear when it will be possible to conduct tests using these devices.
However, given that Trimble owns Omnistar, which provides GPS augmentation via LightSquared’s satellites, one might think that Trimble VP Jim Kirkland would know what he is talking about when he states that “a single prototype has very limited relevance to the substantial interference issues affecting this whole range of devices…[and] doesn’t help existing devices that will experience interference”. In fact LightSquared’s new prototype may end up being totally irrelevant to the testing process that has been laid out by the NTIA, under which LightSquared must come up with a filter to protect existing precision GPS devices, including those used in military applications.
Despite the presence of representatives from both the NTIA and the FCC, the hearing shed rather less light on the timeline for testing, although even the November 30 deadline for resolution of cellphone and general navigation interference came under fire from Republican members. However, it was certainly clear that as I noted yesterday, additional testing of filters for precision devices will not happen before November 30. Interestingly, one Democrat member of the committee also asked the witnesses to estimate in writing what the cost of testing would be, with a view to ensuring that LightSquared pays for all these tests, as well as any retrofitting of existing equipment that would be necessary.