LightSquared media tactics trigger firestorm

September 16, 2011

The chairman of the House aviation subcommittee has fired off a letter to the head of communications venture LightSquared over a company media campaign that blames the GPS industry for setbacks confronting the firm’s proposed wireless network.

An ad by LightSquared published in the Sept. 14 edition of the Wall Street Journal carries a "very different tone" than was set by the company in June testimony before the subcommittee, said its chairman, Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.).

"Apparently the new strategy being employed by LightSquared in its public relations campaign is to place all the blame on GPS," he wrote. That stance ignores the fact that GPS occupied the portion of the spectrum in which it is threatened by LightSquared’s transmissions "long before LightSquared devised its plan," Petri wrote in his Sept. 15 letter to LightSquared Chairman and CEO Sanjiv Ahuja.

LightSquared received conditional approval in January from a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) bureau to proceed with its network. Subsequent testing confirmed concerns of aviation and other GPS users that low-powered GPS signals are overwhelmed by the strong signals from LightSquared’s ground transmitters. Critics also commented to the FCC that terrestrial components of networks were not intended in the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum close to GPS frequencies. The approval amounted to an approve-first, test later process by the FCC, they said.

LightSquared acknowledged the signal-interference problem, and later proposed to transmit for a time only in the lower portion of its authorized bands. But the company blamed GPS receiver design for the problem.

On Sept. 15, the company posted on its website a strongly-worded statement from Ahuja claiming to set the record straight.

"We understand that some in the telecom sector fear the challenges for their business model that LightSquared presents. We understand the opposition of some in the GPS industry; many of their devices ‘squat’ on someone else’s spectrum and while technological fixes are readily available, some companies are loath to make the necessary engineering changes and would instead prefer to get access to someone else's spectrum for free," it said in part.

Petri said the company’s public statements ignore safety concerns of aviation GPS users. He wrote that GPS interference could add to fatal accidents and affect military and search-and-rescue operations.

"I would suggest that it is LightSquared using a part of the spectrum for inappropriate purposes that has led to this dilemma," Petri wrote, suggesting that LightSquared devote its efforts to finding a solution "rather than pointing fingers."

"We applaud Chairman Petri for standing up to protect the safety of pilots and other GPS users," said Lorraine Howerton, AOPA vice president of legislative affairs.

Also this week, the Washington Post reported on Congressional calls to examine whether the FCC had been pressured to issue LightSquared's conditional approval. Reuters reported that a LightSquared official claimed to reporters that the firm had "debunked" the claims of critics of the effects its network would have on GPS.

That report followed a Sept. 8 letter from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, protesting what Grassley called the FCC’s "unprofessional, unreasonable, and downright odd" reticence to honor information requests from individual members of Congress. Grassley pressed anew for disclosure of details about the LightSquared waiver approval, and requested that the FCC respond to his past and present inquiries by Sept. 22.