Lawmakers grill FCC officials on LightSquared's fate

Lawmakers on Friday pressed FCC officials on why the agency had squashed LightSquared's plans to launch a wholesale LTE network so quickly, a stark reversal from earlier concerns that the agency has been too cozy with the company.

The lawmakers, mainly Republicans, on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight grilled the FCC officials over the fact that LightSquared's 40 MHz of 1.6 GHz L-band spectrum is now essentially lying unused while the FCC urges broadcasters to give up spectrum for mobile broadband. The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), said that was not "sound spectrum policy."

The tone is markedly different from the one the FCC has received during the past year regarding LightSquared, with congressional Republicans accusing the FCC of "crony capitalism" and pushing LightSquared's network because of the company's connections to the White House, charges the FCC has always denied. Now, it seems, lawmakers are taking the FCC to task for shutting down LightSquared's network.

"We must not permit regulatory uncertainty at the FCC to deter companies from investments that will bring more competition to the industry and more innovation for consumers," Stearns said. "We must not allow 40 MHz of spectrum to sit fallow while at the same time seek to relocate broadcasters and federal users off their spectrum holdings to free up more space for wireless use. And we must not let poor receiver standards result in more interference issues down the road."

Appearing before the committee was Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, and Mindel De La Torre, who heads the FCC's International Bureau. In January 2011 the FCC gave LightSquared a conditional waiver to launch terrestrial service on its spectrum, contingent on LightSquared resolving GPS interference concerns. In February the FCC revoked the waiver and essentially shut down LightSquared's network plans after tests concluded that there was no practical way to mitigate the GPS interference concerns, a conclusion that LightSquared disputed. LightSquared has since filed for bankruptcy protection.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) defended the FCC, according to a Broadcasting & Cable report, arguing it had been put in a no-win situation. She said the FCC had taken steps to address the GPS interference concerns after they had been raised late in the regulatory process.

Meanwhile, the FCC officials' testimony noted that the FCC's Technological Advisory Council (TAC) is reviewing the standards for legacy GPS receivers, which would have been overloaded with LightSquared's terrestrial signal. LightSquared has called for a review of those standards and the FCC now expects a report on the issue "in the next few weeks." According to TMF Associates analyst Tim Farrar, that suggests that the FCC may be searching for a way for LightSquared to salvage its network, perhaps by sharing spectrum with government agencies, and that the issue is not going to fade away.

For more:
- see this The Hill article
- see this National Journal article
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article
- see this TMF Associates post

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