Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why LightSquared is more than cronyism … It’s about safety

The recent revelations by Eli Lake at The Daily Beast that a four-star Air Force general was pressured to alter his testimony to favor Light Squared, revealed a new case of cronyism in the White House.  Now a second individual has now come forward to say he too was urged to parrot OMB suggested text in his testimony - that the OMB wants expedited testing for frequency interference.  He refused to do so out of safety concerns.  From The Daily Beast: 
The four-star Air Force general who oversees Air Force Space Command walked into a highly secured room on Capitol Hill a week ago to give a classified briefing to lawmakers and staff, and dropped a surprise. Pressed by members, Gen. William Shelton said the White House tried to pressure him to change his testimony to make it more favorable to a company tied to a large Democratic donor.

The episode —confirmed by The Daily Beast in interviews with administration officials and the chairman of a congressional oversight committee —is the latest in a string of incidents that have given Republicans sudden fodder for questions about whether the Obama administration is politically interfering in routine government matters that affect donors or fundraisers. Already, the FBI and a House committee are investigating a federal loan guarantee to a now failed solar firm called Solyndra that is tied to a large Obama fundraiser.

Now the Pentagon has been raising concerns about a new wireless project by a satellite broadband company in Virginia called LightSquared, whose majority owner is an investment fund run by Democratic donor Philip Falcone.

LightSquared hopes to become a satellite based phone operation similar to land based cell phone service providers.  It seeks to use additional unused frequencies adjacent to the GPS band that currently provide a buffer to GPS service.  Interference from LightSquared satellites could degrade GPS service both for civilian and military users.  The majority owner of LightSquared is hedge fund manager Phil Falcone who between himself and his wife have been heavy contributors to the Democratic Party (over $60,000 last year).

But this meddling is far more than crony capitalism it’s about threatening the integrity and safety of the GPS system.  GPS has grown from its infancy as navigation system to pilot sailboats or to guide you to Aunt Katie’s house in rural Vermont. With accuracy improvements, it can now position anyone consistently within 3 feet, anywhere in the world.  Because of that accuracy it is now being used by aircraft to conduct precision approaches to weathered in airports without ILS.  Down the road air traffic control will become GPS based, rather than ground radar based, as will collision avoidance systems.  In the future GPS will be used to help drive your car autonomously (hands-off or driverless).  Google is currently testing a fleet of autonomously driven Priuses in the Bay area (using backup drivers) and soon will be testing them in Nevada, driverless.  The DARPA Grand Challenge conducted in the 2004 to 2007 period proved that driverless cars can operate safely even in an urban environment.  And farm tractors will soon be doing the same thing.  It is the very accuracy and dependability of this system that will be applied to yet undreamed of applications. 

The administration and the FCC should refrain from reducing safety margins for this irreplaceable system.  The recent case of the North Koreans jamming a US intelligence plane’s GPS navigation system, forcing it to cut short its mission shows that the system is fragile.  We should be working on hardening it, not putting it in jeopardy with risky, self serving actions.

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