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Q & A: Lightning Speed on LightSquared


June 3, 2011
By U.. S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
Q. What is LightSquared?

A. LightSquared is a company developing a wireless broadband network that would provide network capacity to communication service providers, such as cable and Internet providers, not directly to consumers. The company says its business model would increase competition in the wireless industry by helping small wireless companies compete on a level playing field with larger providers. The Federal Communications Commission is charged with allowing new entrants into this market.

Q. Are there any concerns about LightSquared?

A. A national coalition says the new system has the potential to cause “severe interference,” affecting millions of users of existing global positioning system technology, commonly called GPS. Among those registering concern are the aviation, agriculture, and construction industries; cellular telecommunications companies; and government entities such as the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Homeland Security. Coalition members include Caterpillar, Deere & Company, the Fire Department of New York, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and UPS. Disrupting global positioning technology could delay law enforcement and first responders in reaching their destinations. It could interfere with farmers’ ability to use the technology in low-visibility conditions, and for field mapping, tractor guidance, and other precision farming techniques such as applying a measured amount of fertilizer needed for optimal crop production. Testing of LightSquared is already under way, and more testing is planned. A recent test showed some disruption of global positioning services for emergency first responders in New Mexico. Beyond technical concerns, the person funding the project is reportedly under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegations of market manipulation. The public spectrum is a valuable asset that the Federal Communications Commission is responsible for protecting. Its unclear what would happen if a company gets access to a piece of this property, then falls apart.

Q. What are the options for resolving these concerns?

A. Despite these concerns, LightSquared appears to be moving at lightning speed for government approval. Originally, the Federal Communications Commission planned to take public comment for only one week. Ordinarily the commission accepts public comments on these issues for 30 days, occasionally 45 days. After consumers and industry groups protested, the commission agreed to extend the comment period on LightSquared by a mere six more days. Because of the concerns over LightSquared’s potential interference with existing technology, and its funder’s questionable financial practices, I recently wrote to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, asking for information on the commission’s consideration of the LightSquared project. I also joined 33 fellow senators in urging the agency to consider interference concerns. So far, the agency has responded to my letter with radio silence. It should provide the information I’ve requested in the interest of transparency in doing the public’s business. I’ll continue to press for answers.

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