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September 21, 2012

FCC Claims No Knowledge of LightSquared GPS Interference

The Federal Communications Commission has said that while it initially approved Philip Falcone’s LightSquared Inc, it did not know the wireless service would interfere with global position system signals.

The FCC cited the reason as being simply that GPS-gear makers did not complain. Once the issues with LightSquared were made clear by manufacturers and users, however, the FCC pulled the plug straight away.

Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology, commented on the debacle, saying “The FCC would have investigated any interference issues as soon as they were raised.”

Knapp’s comment came at the company’s testimony at a U.S. House hearing held today, where Knapp also affirmed “The commission acted responsibly.”

LightSquared was approved by the FCC to start its planned wireless network in January 2011, reportedly before any potential problems were realized.

The initial decision to give the green light to LightSquared was tentative, however.

Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican commented at today’s hearing that “A decision was made in haste.”

In February 2012, the FCC reversed its decision and proposed a blocking of the service. Quickly after this decision, LightSquared filed for bankruptcy in May, despite its backing from Harbinger Capital Partners hedge fund for $3 billion.

The claim now is that the FCC did not adequately consider GPS-related issues before making its decision in 2011, but the debate has strong voices on both sides at the moment.

“We must not permit regulatory uncertainty at the FCC to deter companies from investments,” insisted Florida Republican and committee chairman Cliff Stearns.

Representative Diana Degette, a Colorado Democrat, said at the hearing, “This investigation has revealed a regulatory review process working as it should. We have the FCC weighing the pros and cons, and making a very difficult decision.”

According to the FCC’s written testimony on the matter, the interference problems in question aren’t that straight-forward anyway. Some GPS devices use airwaves that aren’t specifically assigned to navigation equipment, and these are the devices experiencing problems.

LightSquared operates within these free spectrums, not those assigned to GPS devices, so the ‘fault’ aspect of the debate is, according to the FCC, in an extremely grey area.

“The commission relies on receiver manufacturers and service providers to report interference issues,” the FCC wrote in its testimony, “The GPS industry did not do so until very late in the proceeding. Once the commission received that information, it acted quickly to prevent any public safety problems.”

The FCC does not necessarily have the final word on the matter, however. Jim Kirkland of GPS-gear maker Trimble Navigation Ltd. responded to the testimony in an e-mail, calling it “deeply misguided and wrong.”

Defending the GPS-maker’s side of the argument, Kirkland said “Once the FCC initiated these proceedings, the GPS industry promptly raised the interference issues.”

The FCC has replied with “no comment” to Kirkland’s objections.

As of now, LightSquared cannot deploy its service while the FCC decides whether to revoke initial approvals, as the agency proposed doing in February.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman

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