Lawmakers: FCC may have rushed LightSquared decision

The agency failed to consider interference questions before allowing the company to move forward, critics say

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission rushed to judgment in giving permission in early 2011 for startup LightSquared to offer LTE service in a band of wireless spectrum next to a band used by GPS devices, several U.S. lawmakers said Friday.

By allowing LightSquared to move forward without fully considering GPS interference issues, the FCC has wasted an opportunity to bring more mobile competition to the U.S., said Representative Cliff Stearns, chairman of the investigations subcommittee of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

With LightSquared's FCC permission now pulled, the company is in "regulatory limbo," Stearns, a Florida Republican, said during a hearing. "LightSquared, a company that committed billions of dollars and years of time into developing its network, has filed for bankruptcy. It's 40 megahertz of spectrum is left unused in a time when demand for wireless service and broadband is exploding."

In February, after loud complaints about interference from the GPS industry and some government agencies, the FCC moved to pull its conditional waiver allowing LightSquared to move forward. LightSquared filed for bankruptcy in May, although the FCC is still looking for ways to mitigate interference to GPS devices that pick up signals from devices operating in the LightSquared spectrum.

Several subcommittee members suggested the FCC rushed its original approval for LightSquared, with some lawmakers focusing questions on the length of a public comment period in November 2010 before the FCC granted LightSquared its conditional waiver to offer service. After some groups requested an extension from the FCC's original seven-day comment period, the agency added three days.

"Three days doesn't seem like a lot of time for an issue of this complexity," said Representative Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican.

But Mindel De La Torre, chief of the FCC's International Bureau, and Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, defended the timeline.

The FCC has considered allowing terrestrial mobile service to use the so-called L-band of the Mobile Satellite Spectrum since 2001, allowing multiple public comment periods, and the GPS industry first raised concerns about devices operating in LightSquared's spectrum overloading GPS receivers in July 2010, De La Torre said. The GPS industry had raised some concerns earlier about devices in the LightSquared spectrum bleeding over into the GPS spectrum, she said, but not receivers in the GPS spectrum overloading.

The FCC's rulemaking processes are open, "and it's incumbent on all the parties to participate," Knapp added. "This situation has been, in my 38 years at the FCC, an anomaly."

Jim Kirkland, vice president and general counsel of GPS provider Trimble, called the FCC officials' testimony "deeply misguided and wrong."

The FCC, as early as 2003, assured government users of GPS that it would protect the service, Kirkland said in a statement. "Now, the FCC staff apparently believes that it was only obligated to consider GPS interference issues if GPS manufacturers raised them -- which would be an astonishing abandonment of the FCC's public interest responsibilities," he said. 

But at the hearing, some lawmakers pointed their fingers at the GPS industry, as well as the FCC. The FCC needs to better police when devices are straying out of their assigned spectrum, said Representative Brian Bilbray, a California Republican.

"Isn't this a situation of [spectrum] squatting and squatter's rights?" he said. "How do we tell anybody, when they do bids, that there's not going to be a squatter sitting on their spectrum, if we don't straighten this thing out?"

Stearns also suggested the FCC had some responsibility to keep GPS devices out of the L band, and he pressed Knapp on whether there would be a solution to the interference problem. "Can the problem be fixed?" he said. "All of us are a little frustrated with this huge possible innovation leap here and the loss of this company."

Knapp declined to make a prediction but said the FCC is looking at several proposals for fixing the problem. "LightSquared has put some new ideas on the table, and we think everything is worth considering at this point," he said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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