The documents released by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) from the responses to their FOIA request to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), don’t yet provide any smoking guns about the process by which LightSquared was able to get its FCC waiver in January 2011, after applying for it one year ago today. However, the information that is currently online represents only a tiny fraction of the 13,450 responsive documents supplied by OSTP, so it is hard to tell if there is anything more significant still to emerge.
In my view, the most intriguing new document is the January 12 2011 draft of LightSquared’s commitment letter to the FCC, which states that the “industry working group comprised of participants in the telecom and GPS industries…should be lead (sic) by the Commission“, whereas in the final version of the letter this paragraph was removed (and LightSquared was ultimately appointed by the FCC to lead the Technical Working Group). This change seems to have been agreed to by the FCC in exchange for LightSquared stating that “we are willing to accept as a condition on a grant of our request the creation of a process to address interference concerns regarding GPS and, further, that this process must be completed to the FCC’s satisfaction before LightSquared commences offering commercial service”, a commitment which LightSquared’s counsel described as “an investment & customer killer”.
Perhaps more significantly, the documents also provide a very interesting perspective on how views of LightSquared evolved within the FCC, White House and NTIA between mid 2010 and summer 2011. In July 2010, Jim Kohlenberger, Chief of Staff at the OSTP, thought LightSquared’s deal with NSN was “very exciting“, while in September 2010 he kept “hearing great things” about LightSquared. By January 2011 LightSquared’s relationship with the White House was sufficiently close that LightSquared’s counsel was asking “if there’s anything NTIA can do with the press on background to calm the waters” because “Press reports…are leading to big problems with investors, present & potential, customers, Sprint, et al”.
However, as information emerged about the extent of GPS interference, that changed pretty dramatically. In particular, after the submission of the Technical Working Group report in late June, pressure from Sen. Grassley for the FCC to provide documents meant “things [were] heating up” and by early August it was clear that LightSquared would be experiencing “headwinds” because the FCC Chairman was about to throw LightSquared under the bus, with his announcement on August 9 that he would not permit LightSquared to operate until interference concerns were resolved. By August 16, even the NTIA Administrator was indicating that any suggestion by LightSquared that they discuss how to move forward meant that “LightSquared is in Wonderland” (ironically a comparison that I also remarked on). Then in mid September, it became clear, after the FCC’s Public Notice mandated further testing, that everyone in government (and apparently the FCC) would “distance” themselves (exactly as I predicted), telling a Harbinger representative that “I must ask that you stop communicating with me regarding the LightSquared matter.”
Once this timeline and the current attitude of key people in government is understood, it becomes evident how truly dire LightSquared’s prospects are. Simply put, there is now no chance whatsoever that there will be any positive ruling from the FCC (or even an end to the testing, which can be prolonged almost indefinitely if the government insists on testing LightSquared devices as well – indeed the FAA presented a timeline yesterday with potentially multiple stages of further testing, including handsets, beginning in the Spring of 2012), and it is simply a question of wondering when the money all runs out.