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Grassley to White House: Cough up LightSquared docs or I’ll block FCC nominees

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By Michelle Malkin  •  November 7, 2011 11:27 AM

GOP watchdogs on Capitol Hill continue to chip away at White House stonewalls.

When last we visited the LightSquared scandal, one of the shady company’s partners was going under here in Colorado despite a $267 million fed loan and officials at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration were playing disclosure-ducking games.

The FCC is engaging in hide-the-docs, too. Sen. Charles Grassley has vowed to block Obama’s FCC nominees until the panel coughs up requested info:

The controversy over satellite-LTE carrier LightSquared could prevent the U.S. Federal Communications Commission from filling two vacant seats if a U.S. senator follows through on a threat issued this week.

In a statement on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa vowed to hold up a full Senate vote to confirm Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai as members of the FCC unless the agency answers his questions about its handling of LightSquared. President Barack Obama nominated Rosenworcel and Pai to the FCC on Tuesday, but their appointments will need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Grassley, a Republican, has been fighting the FCC since he wrote a letter to the agency in April requesting information about its regulation of LightSquared’s proposed hybrid satellite and cellular network. The carrier has a satellite mobile data network and wants to also build an LTE (Long-Term Evolution) network on frequencies close to those used by GPS (Global Positioning System). In January, the FCC granted the company a waiver to sell wholesale access to the two networks separately, making an exception to current rules. It gave the waiver on the condition that there be no interference between the LTE network and GPS.

…Subsequent tests showed interference that effectively knocked out many GPS devices. LightSquared has adjusted its plans to minimize that interference and now says the problem could be solved through those changes and some affordable modifications to GPS receivers. But the company is still trading claims with GPS vendors and users over who caused the problem, what fixes can work and who should pay for them.

Grassley wants the agency to address concerns about GPS interference, but also about Harbinger Capital, the hedge fund that owns LightSquared. He cited U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigations into Harbinger and concerns that the company may have used past political contributions to influence the FCC toward granting the waiver.

The FCC declined to give Grassley the documents he asked for because he is not the chairman of a committee with direct jurisdiction over the agency, Grassley said.

Grassley’s statement on the FCC’s “radio silence:”

Radio Silence on New Wireless Service Draws Concern

A new wireless Internet network project appears on a fast track for government approval, despite concerns that it could jam the existing navigational systems used in farming, trucking, air travel, law enforcement, by the military and in general consumer navigation, and that the person funding the operation is a controversial hedge fund founder who’s reportedly under federal investigation for questionable financial dealings.

If anything, the shadows around the LightSquared project should have led the Federal Communications Commission to proceed with caution rather than step on the gas. Yet the opposite happened. The agency originally planned to take public comment on a key regulation necessary for green-lighting the project for only one week. The commission relented and held the comment period open longer only after consumers and affected businesses protested.

Still, the agency has granted a conditional waiver for LightSquared to proceed with its wireless network. Testing of the technology’s effects on other navigational systems is ongoing.

This week, as LightSquared was testing in Nevada, the Federal Aviation Administration warned that Global Positioning System service in a 300-mile area could be “unreliable or unavailable” for six-hour periods during testing, according to media reports. Other tests showed some disruption of this service for emergency first responders in New Mexico.

A LightSquared official was quoted as saying the company doesn’t want to jeopardize national security or public safety interests. He also said, “We’re trying to get our arms around this problem.”

Given the Federal Communications Commission’s haste so far, I worry that LightSquared will not have interference problems resolved before given the green light to become fully operational. Farmers shouldn’t have to worry that they’re planting the correct seed or applying the precise amount of fertilizer needed for the soil to optimally produce the crop, and ambulance drivers shouldn’t have to weather taking a wrong turn or driving into a ditch because a new system is scrambling their existing navigational technology. Just today, I joined 33 fellow senators in urging the agency to consider interference concerns.

Another concern is on the financial side. The head of the hedge fund behind the project told investors that his firm is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegations of market manipulation, according to media reports. The firm has been the subject of considerable media attention for losing large amounts of money and other controversies including whether the firm should have told investors in a timely fashion about a $113 million loan it extended to the principal of the firm.

The public spectrum is limited, and it’s a valuable asset that the Federal Communications Commission is responsible for protecting. It’s unclear what would happen if a company gets access to this piece of public property, then falls apart.

The unusual fast-tracking of this project before its effects have been fully tested raises questions about whether the agency did its due diligence. I’m looking for answers to these questions so taxpayers can be assured that the government is treating public property the way it ought to be treated. I wrote to the commission, seeking information about its process and its rationale here.

So far, the agency has responded with radio silence. It should provide the information I’ve requested in the interest of transparency in doing the public’s business. I’ll continue to press for answers.

***

Previous:

October 5 Scandal Watch: LightSquared partner ($267 million fed loan recipient) goes under; stonewalling at NTIA

September 23 Government Loans to Nowhere

September 21 LightSquared: Obama’s Dangerous Broadband Boondoggle

September 15 LightSquared: The next Obama pay-for-play morass?

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