The Associated Press today reinforces questions raised by NLPC about a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to allow a company called LightSquared to deploy a national wireless network. NLPC has alleged that political influence played a role in FCC decisions favorable to LightSquared.
According to AP Technology Writer Joelle Tessler:
A new, ultra-fast wireless Internet network is threatening to overpower GPS signals across the U.S. and interfere with everything from airplanes to police cars to consumer navigation devices.
The problem stems from a recent government decision to let a Virginia company called LightSquared build a nationwide broadband network using airwaves next to those used for GPS. Manufacturers of GPS equipment warn that strong signals from the planned network could jam existing navigation systems.
On February 2, NLPC asked the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to investigate the circumstances surrounding the FCC’s approval of an acquisition of a company called SkyTerra, that was renamed LightSquared, by hedge fund Harbinger Capital. We also asked for a review of the FCC’s subsequent granting of a waiver that allows LightSquared to deploy a wireless network.
We pointed out that Harbinger is headed by billionaire Phil Falcone who visited the White House in 2009 and a day later signed the SkyTerra deal. One week later, Falcone and his wife each contributed $30,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
We also pointed to an apparent conflict of influence involving a senior FCC official named Terri Glaze. She is the wife of lobbyist Steve Glaze of the Palmetto Group, which Harbinger retained, via its legal counsel, to lobby the FCC.
The story gets more interesting. In 2005, Senator Barack Obama invested $90,000 in the obscure, thinly-traded SkyTerra. He was put into the investment by a UBS broker at the behest of a major donor to Obama’s campaigns named George W. Haywood, who was also a major investor in SkyTerra.
In 2007, when the New York Times reported the investment, Obama claimed he knew nothing about the stock, and said he lost money when it was sold. In any case, it is obvious Obama and Haywood remain close. Haywood and his wife, for instance, were on the guest list for the India State Dinner, in November 2009.
A November 13, 2010 story in the Wall Street Journal online details that Harbinger was losing investors, some of whom did not like the LightSquared investment. According to reporter Jenny Strasburg:
In 2009, while some investors were asking for withdrawals, others were lining up to put money into Harbinger. They included Soros Fund Management, which during the past year became a significant new investor, say people familiar with the matter.
The problems detailed by AP are so severe that the spotlight is sure to swing back to the FCC, and how this deal was ever approved in the first place. AP quoted experts who predict dire consequences:
“The potential impact of GPS interference is so vast, it’s hard to get your head around,” said Jim Kirkland, vice-president and general counsel of Trimble Navigation Ltd., which makes GPS systems. “Think 40,000 GPS dead spots covering millions of square miles in cities and towns throughout the U.S.”
One of the biggest risks is to the GPS navigation systems used by about 40 per cent of commercial and private planes. Backup systems that rely on ground-based radio signals are not as accurate and have coverage gaps. Some older private planes have no backup at all.
With GPS interference, a pilot “may go off course and not even realize it,” said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
AP also produced a video report that can viewed above.