Spectrum crunch

If you’ve ever been to Europe (I haven’t, but lots of my friends have), you know that wireless broadband access is everywhere and often free — unlike here, where it’s clustered in the cities, with frequently spotty coverage, and always expensive. The telecom companies prefer to keep it that way, and that seems to be behind an all-out assault on a company named LightSquared:

LightSquared sent the satellite for its wholesale wireless network in 2010, but has had trouble getting federal approval for the project due to a dustup over GPS and other political woes. Now the start-up has decided to launch a political counteroffensive.

Already mired in a complicated technological debate over how to prevent its network from interfering with GPS, the wireless start-up LightSquared has faced withering political criticism over the past few months. Now the company has a message for its detractors: Two can play that game.

LightSquared is struggling to launch a nationwide, wholesale wireless network based partially on satellites and had been focused on the technical aspects of its argument — much of it over whether the company’s planned network would interfere with existing GPS technology. But after a flurry of unflattering headlines alleging that the company won Federal Communications Commission approval for its plans through campaign contributions and backroom deals, LightSquared is now trying to shift the focus to its critics.

LightSquared has hired dozens of top lobbyists, including at least seven former elected officials — including ex-House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri; former Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas; and Democratic former Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania.

Most recently, LightSquared has taken aim at Bradford Parkinson, known as one of the founders of GPS and a member of the National Space-Based Positioning Navigation & Timing Advisory Board, which advises the government on GPS issues. Parkinson is also an investor and a member of the board of Trimble, a GPS manufacturer that has led the fight against LightSquared’s plans.

That, LightSquared officials contend, is a conflict of interest.

“It seems highly incongruous and even inappropriate to us that the government’s top outside adviser on GPS matters would be simultaneously helping to oversee the same company that is leading the public-relations and lobbying campaign against LightSquared, and that has a financial interest in the outcome of that battle,” said LightSquared spokesman Terry Neal.

LightSquared is also pushing back at members of the GPS industry who have argued that LightSquared is trying to game the political system for financial gain.

On Wednesday, LightSquared released publicly available information that it had compiled showing top Trimble executives dumping millions of dollars in company shares the month after LightSquared received conditional FCC approval for parts of its plan in January.

Rep. Tom Petri and Sen. Chuck Grassley, both Republicans, have gone after the FCC for how it’s handled the LightSquared process. (Coincidentally, both of them got some hefty contribtions from groups with GPS ties, but I’m sure it has nothing to do with their outrage.)

It’s one of those complicated stories that makes my head hurt, involving misleading allegations that LightSquared will ruin GPS signals, and even includes some dark Solyandra-type smears against Obama from Republicans (because LightSquared made Democratic contributions).

The part you need to know is, we desperately need actual competition to drive wireless broadband prices down, and the big money interests are trying to keep that from happening. So sign the petition to ask Congress to do something about it.

3 thoughts on “Spectrum crunch

  1. I’m not so sure about the ubiquity and cheapness of broadband wireless. A few years ago, I went on a business trip to Paris. I checked with my carrier, before I left to make sure my cell phone would work in France. Oh, no problem, just use the local carrier and we’ll only charge you 20 cents a MB. Great! So I went to Musee D’Orsay one afternoon and took as many surreptitious pictures as I could and emailed them back to my BFF who had never been to France and whose goal it is to visit as many art museums as possible in this lifetime.
    When I got back, I got the bill. For $400.00. Turns out that a US cents symbol bears a striking similarity to a Euro symbol. It wasn’t 20 cents per MB, it was 20 euros per MB. The US carrier service person couldn’t tell the difference, which demonstrates 2 things: 1.)US customer service people are remarkably ill-educated in currency symbols and 2.) Orange service in France ain’t cheap.

  2. I assume the charges originated with a US provider not the Frenchies.

    My deal with this story is the apparent light speed with which these technologies are developing. Unless you’re in the business or extremely paranoid (if term paranoia is valid anymore) one finds out about these initiatives only after they’ve been put in place. Another topic we can thank our Corporate Media for skipping so they can cover another Kardashian.

  3. The all-out assault on LightSquared comes from federal agencies and departments like the FAA, the DoD, NASA, the Coast Guard, etc, as well as diverse private groups ranging from agriculture, aviation, marine, construction, among others. The telecoms have very little to do with it.

    And there is nothing misleading about allegations that LightSquared ruining GPS, it was already conclusively proven in a series of FCC ordered tests conducted in the first half of 2011 that a fully operational LightSquared network would effectively ruin GPS, a national and global utility, rendering billions of dollars of economic damage and killing hundreds of lives.

    The better question should be exactly how Lightsquared was able to get a fast-tracked conditional waiver to build a powerful terrestrial only network in spectrum that has been historically and internationally recognized as reserved for satellite usage, potentially resulting in a multi-billion dollar gift from the taxpayers of America and how LightSquared could be so incompetent as to have no idea how badly their network would affect GPS.

    If you want more competition in wireless, the cronyism and pure engineering incompetence shown by LightSquared isn’t the way to do so.

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