Obama administration technology experts were slow to recognize potential threats to government aviation and defense communications posed by wireless firm LightSquared’s plans for a national broadband network, White House emails records show.
Dozens of emails and other records obtained by iWatch News through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that White House officials received several warnings that the company’s operations would disrupt GPS devices used by millions of Americans.
But those concerns didn’t get close attention until several months after the Federal Communications Commission’s Jan. 26, 2011 decision to grant the firm conditional approval to operate—an action that incensed GPS users and triggered an avalanche of opposition.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said on Friday that the FCC “is an independent agency with its own standards and procedures” over which the White House has no control.
“Every administration witness testifying at every hearing on LightSquared has been explicit in identifying the problems it would cause for GPS, and that LightSquared should not be allowed to move forward unless those interference issues are resolved,” Schultz said in a statement.
He added: “The fact that LightSquared personnel met with administration officials to tout their company and administration officials have continued to voice concerns about the interference issues underscores our point that we fully respected the FCC’s independent process.”
Some congressional Republicans are demanding an investigation of LightSquared’s contacts with White House officials—and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions the company made to Democrats and President Obama—as it sought government approval to operate its broadband network.
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, cited an iWatch News report in calling for the investigation at a hearing on Thursday. The article, published on Wednesday, revealed that on the same day that LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja made a $30,400 contribution to the Democratic Party, two of his deputies appealed to the White House for meetings with top technology advisers to Obama.
The White House emails showed that the controversy brewed for months behind the scenes prior to the decision by the FCC, which requires that the interference questions be resolved prior to the firm starting its business.
A coalition of GPS proponents voiced its concerns in a Dec. 30, 2010 letter to John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It said that the LightSquared application, “if granted as filed poses a serious potential for harmful interference to the installed GPS user base” in urban areas of the country.
The coalition went on to say that government and private industry had spent at least $25 billion since 1981 developing a range of GPS uses and that several hundred thousand jobs in the country depend on the ability to receive GPS signal.
Precisely what senior White House officials recommended in response to the letter and others from critics who suggested a calamity for GPS, remains unclear because administration officials redacted lengthy portions of email exchanges released to iWatch News.
Still, the emails suggest the technology office maintained a closer relationship with LightSquared’s representatives than its critics.
With the FCC decision pending, company lawyer Henry Goldberg emailed White House official James Kohlenberger a “draft” filing that it was preparing to send the agency that pointed out LightSquared was investing billions of dollars to build its network and that it would “provide a healthy boost in jobs and economic development” and stood as a model for future such networks. Though the company said it took objections from GPS advocates “very seriously,” it said that only a “small number of devices may actually be subject to the interference.”
“Jim, the FCC people have this draft. Let me know where the hot spots are. Thanks for your help,” reads the email from Goldberg to the White House official.
But White House emails show attention to the potential disruptions from the broadband network accelerated after Peter L. Levin, the chief technology officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs. warned White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and two other senior White House aides in a March 26, 2011 email of a “catastrophe” from GPS interference.
Levin said that the administration’s technical experts had failed to conduct sufficient testing to fully understand the degree to which GPS could be disrupted, especially ground towers. “The neighbors are close indeed,” he wrote. “You can put the bullhorn in space and nobody would be bothered, but if you put it on the GROUND under a broad interpretation of ‘ancillary satellite services,’ you run a material risk of wrecking the delicate balance designed to enable those services.”
Levin went on to say that experts from Stanford University who criticized the plan had a “very legitimate, data driven point” in raising their concerns.
LightSquared spokesman Terry Neal disputed that conclusion. He said that the exchange showed that the GPS industry had tried to influence the White House policy makers, just as his company had tried to advance its position in meetings and other contacts with the technology office.
One concrete action indicating increasing concern came with an April 28, 2011 meeting described in White House emails as the “LightSquared interference meeting.” It was set at the Jackson Place conference center, a short stroll from the White House. The names of the people invited are blacked out in the records released under FOIA, in addition to the agenda and any other details of what transpired.
LightSquared’s $14 billion plan promises to create thousands of jobs and provide broadband wireless service to more than 260 million Americans. But the opposition complains it could threaten aviation safety, disrupt military and rescue operations—and interfere with cell phones.
Critics of LightSquared listed a litany of pitfalls at Thursday’s Armed Services subcommittee hearing, though the company has said those fears are exaggerated.
Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, testified that test results indicated LightSquared’s signals would interfere with military equipment and “effectively jam vital GPS receivers.”
In response to questions, Shelton said that fixing the problem could cost billions of dollars, if the problems could even be remedied.
In a response sent to the committee Thursday, LightSquared executive vice president Jeffrey Carlisle said the company’s authorization to operate dates back many years. “Ground operations were first approved under the previous Republican administration and have continued to be part of wireless policy under the current Democratic administration.”
He said the company would continue to work with government officials to resolve the dispute so that both systems can co-exist. “LightSquared has put forward serious proposals at no small cost to itself to address these issues, in the belief that American consumers and government users deserve both a robust GPS and a competitive wireless broadband network,” Carlisle wrote.