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FCC no-show, lobbying query overshadow LightSquared hearing

Fri, 09/16/2011 - 8:00am
Maisie Ramsay, Wireless Week

Yesterday's House Armed Services Committee hearing was supposed to be about the impact of LightSquared's network on national security – the Defense Department and military make extensive use of GPS that could suffer interference from LightSquared's transmitters – but the nonappearance of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, scrutiny of lobbying in the executive branch and questions about FCC decision-making overshadowed the event.

Ohio Republican Michael Turner, chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, began the hearing by criticizing Genachowski for failing to appear.

"I have the unfortunate responsibility to inform the subcommittee that FCC Chairman Genachowski refused to appear today," Turner said, calling the no-show "symptomatic of a disregard by the chairman to the consequences of the FCC's Jan. 26 waiver to LightSquared. I consider the chairman's failure to show up today to be an affront to the House Armed Services Committee."

The FCC chairman had been asked to testify but did not attend the hearing, instead submitting a six-page letter to Turner and California Democrat Loretta Sanchez. Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering Technology, appeared in his stead.

FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun later denied that Genachowski had refused to testify, saying, "The chairman never refused to testify, nor did his staff make any such suggestions."

Aside from pointed remarks about Genachowski's absenteeism, Turner and other lawmakers also questioned how the FCC came about its decision to grant LightSquared a conditional waiver for an LTE network in spectrum adjacent to GPS bands. The waiver blocks LightSquared from deploying its network until it resolves the GPS interference issue, but government agencies want more reassurance that the service won't go live until the problem is fixed.

"Many have observed that the FCC followed an irregular process on the LightSquared waiver," Turner said, citing letters sent by the Defense Department and NTIA voicing concerns about LightSquared's impact on GPS before the agency granted the waiver.

Turner suggested that LightSquared backer and hedge fund billionaire Phil Falcone used his influence to get the waiver, quoting a letter from the National Legal and Policy Center that stated: "Over the course of the past year, a series of odd decisions, questionable meetings and procedural anomalies at the Federal Communications Commission and White House highlight Falcone's growing influence in the hallways of government."

The dustup over LightSquared's political connections extended beyond yesterday's Congressional hearing.

On Wednesday, the Center for Public Integrity released a report alleging that LightSquared executives lobbied the White House for one-on-ones, dropping hints about its donations to Democrat politicians and a fundraising dinner for President Obama. The watchdog group based its report on emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja called the insinuations "ludicrous" in a written response to Turner's remarks.

"It's difficult to charge that LightSquared has undue political influence when it was denied the opportunity to testify at today's hearing of the House Armed Service Committee's Strategic Forces Subcommittee – or even be allowed a one-on-one meeting with the chairman of that committee prior to the hearing, as the GPS industry was given," he said.

The company has $10,600 set aside for campaign contributions in a political action committee, Ahuja said, adding that he himself gave $30,400 to both political parties in the months before LightSquared's waiver was granted late last year. Falcone has contributed to both parties in the last eight years, "with two-thirds of his contributions going to Republicans because of the founder's free market philosophy."

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