During the past few weeks, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has absorbed a new surge of technical filings and lobbyist visits regarding an avoidable controversy that began in President Obama’s first term when a fateful decision put political optics ahead of sound science. The new FCC, under the fact-based leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, will not make the same mistakes.
In 2010, as a FCC commissioner, I had a front-row seat to the needless creation of a hot mess that became known as the “LightSquared” matter. Then, the FCC pivoted away from physics and toward politics in making an ill-conceived decision that fundamentally endangered aviation safety and the operation of vital military equipment. Although this mega-inside-the-Beltway controversy was never voted on by commissioners, it was left behind for today’s FCC.
Unfortunately, Ligado, the re-branded LightSquared, hasn’t changed its tactics, is pushing hard and is hoping today’s policymakers have short memories. It won’t succeed.
Our saga begins in 2010 when LightSquared asked the FCC for permission to “rezone” its satellite spectrum licenses so they could be used for land-based mobile wireless broadband services, such as LTE. The FCC rushed approval of LightSquared’s request without adequately considering the harmful interference the rezoning would cause to existing nearby licensed users.
The use of radio frequencies is regulated somewhat like land. “Neighborhoods” of spectrum are “zoned” in ways to minimize “noisy” occupants from interfering with their neighbor’s quiet enjoyment of their lots. When the FCC allowed LightSquared to use its parcel of satellite spectrum for other purposes, namely terrestrial mobile broadband, the decision was akin to allowing a frat house (LightSquared) to move into the lot next to an already established library (existing satellite licensees), which needs a quiet neighborhood to operate.
The move violated the FCC’s decades-old prime directive governing America’s airwaves: any changes in spectrum zoning must avoid harmful interference with incumbent licensees. In the wake of the FCC’s 2010 grant of LightSquared’s request, it received a tsunami of interference complaints.
To begin with, the commercial GPS industry complained that LightSquared’s terrestrial wireless network interfered with their products. This included not only consumer GPS devices found in cars, phones and watches, but also high-tech devices used by farmers.
The Department of Transportation raised similar concerns over interference to safety equipment being installed in automobiles – a must for the self-driving cars of tomorrow.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) raised concerns about interference to networks used to track weather.
The Department of Defense lodged concerns about interference to military equipment.
And perhaps most alarming, the aviation industry, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration complained that LightSquared’s terrestrial wireless network would interfere with aviation navigation equipment, jeopardizing the safety of millions.
In response to the broad-based alarm, instead of finding new land in a more suitable land-based mobile wireless neighborhood, LightSquared blitzed Washington with paper and lobbyists. Between 2010 and 2012, the company filed over 325 documents totaling more than 8,000 pages with the FCC alone, and met with FCC decision makers 74 times.
In self-defense, the GPS industry and other threatened parties submitted filing after filing documenting their interference concerns. Congress also got involved, holding six hearings exploring LightSquared’s political connections, the FCC’s effectiveness in reviewing the application, and the potential for harmful interference.
Ultimately, in the face of a mountain of clear and convincing evidence, the FCC retracted its conditional grant of LightSquared’s application. Shortly thereafter, LightSquared entered bankruptcy. Investors filed civil suits against LightSquared, and LightSquared sued myriad others. In total, 26 cases were filed and LightSquared peppered the judiciary with 729 filings.
Today, it’s the same old story. In recent weeks Ligado (LightSquared’s fourth name since inception) has blitzed the FCC anew with papers and visits that weakly trumpet mere echoes of its past failed arguments. Perhaps they were hoping that the FCC and Congress had forgotten about its debris field of its past. Nonetheless, the essence of the science behind their arguments hasn’t changed: Ligado’s plan still causes harmful interference to already-licensed neighbors such as satellite services providers, NOAA’s weather service and the aviation industry.
The consequences would be profound and far-reaching. Recent analyses underscore this fundamental problem. In fact, the independent and non-partisan economic think tank, the Phoenix Center, concluded in a recent study that if the FCC adopts policies like Ligado’s proposal that cause harmful interference between satellite and terrestrial users, “[T]hen the rational response of private parties is to curb investment. A reduction in investment will reduce the value of wireless services and, in turn, the value of the spectrum.” In short, granting Ligado’s proposal would cause serious negative consequences across America’s world-leading wireless ecosystem.
The good news is that the new FCC won’t be susceptible to political pressure and will instead follow the facts and science while applying the law in a dispassionate and judicious manner. With the new FCC sheriff in town, Ligado should stop arguing for regulatory arbitrage and rent seeking.
Robert McDowell served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from 2006-13. He is currently a partner and co-leader of the global communications practice at Cooley LLP. Cooley's clients include Iridium, which has filed opposition to Ligado before the FCC. In 2014, McDowell appeared in the bankruptcy trial of LightSquared as an expert witness to testify on the issues of FCC process and timing.
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