The political storm clouds over GPS

After the top Air Force space boss confirmed a proposed new network would effectively jam military GPS, a scandal appeared to be brewing.

The Air Force’s top space boss confirmed Thursday that a proposed new national broadband network partly backed by a Democratic campaign contributor causes “severe interference” to the military’s ability to use the Global Positioning System.

DoD and federal witnesses told a House panel on Thursday that they won’t let the new network begin operation until they’re confident it won’t interfere with the military’s GPS, but their appearance came after a report in the Daily Beast that the White House had pressured the head of Air Force Space Command, Gen. William Shelton, to change what he planned to tell the subcommittee. Republicans appeared ready to use the connections to try to embarrass the White House.

Here’s the backstory: Virginia broadband startup LightSquared wants to build a new national network with both terrestrial transmitters and links to satellites in orbit. But the network operates so close to the spectrum used by GPS that it hampers military receivers’ ability to get the precise timing and tracking data they rely on. The Federal Communications Commission gave LightSquared preliminary permission to begin testing its network, and DoD tried it out earlier this year down at White Sands Missile Range and Holloman AFB, N.M. The results, Shelton and others said, were clear: LightSquared’s signals effectively jammed the military’s GPS receivers with their much stronger signals.

GPS, Shelton told lawmakers, was supposed to occupy a “quiet neighborhood” in the electromagnetic spectrum. “But if you put a rock band in the middle of that quiet neighborhood, that’s quite a different circumstance,” he said.

No one disputes the results of this year’s tests, including LightSquared, the House witnesses said Thursday. The company has submitted an alternative proposal that would enable it to use frequencies a little farther away from GPS, and to develop “filters” to protect GPS receivers. That’s where the process stands now; DoD and federal authorities say they haven’t had time to study the new proposal to determine what to make of it, but there’s some worry that the nature of LightSquared also would interfere with GPS no matter what changes it makes.

Complicating all this is that LightSquared is owned by an investment group run by billionaire Democratic donor Philip Falcone. In Thursday’s story in the Daily Beast, Eli Lake wrote that it appeared the White House tried to pressure Shelton to change what he planned to tell the House subcommittee in deference to Falcone’s interest in standing up LightSquared’s network.  Wrote Lake:

The Obama administration urged Shelton to say “the general supported the White House policy to add more broadband for commercial use; and that the Pentagon would try to resolve the questions around LightSquared with testing in just 90 days. Shelton chafed at the intervention, which seemed to soften the Pentagon’s position and might be viewed as helping the company as it tries to get the project launched, the officials said.”

Shelton didn’t give that testimony to the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces subcommittee; he told committee members unequivocally that LightSquared’s network jammed the military GPS receivers “and to our knowledge, there are no mitigation measures.” Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio vowed to refer the situation to Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Turner also said that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s decision not to show up for Turner’s hearing was an “affront” to Congress.

So — still hanging in there? It’s a perfect scandal for Republicans: Even as GOP defense advocates rail against what they call dangerous proposed budget cuts for DoD from the White House, now they have a situation in which the Obama administration may have tried to help clear the road for  a big fundraiser whose business could jeopardize military readiness. It fits the classic Republican narrative that Democrats don’t get defense.

The Office of Management and Budget told Lake there’s nothing unusual about vetting government witnesses’ testimony, and Shelton didn’t tell lawmakers what he was reportedly being pressured to say. In fact, in response to questions from Turner and the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, Shelton said it could cost billions of dollars and a decade or longer to develop the “filters” needed to safeguard military GPS receivers from interference from LightSquared — assuming its alternative plan actually works as advertised. That’s a non-starter in Austerity America, and Turner asked rhetorically why the military should have to absorb the time, costs and inconvenience to shield itself in the first place — it has a right to continue using GPS as it is, he argued, not an obligation to accommodate private-sector newcomers.

What comes next? Maybe another House hearing, if Issa takes up this cause, and possibly more from the Armed Services Committee when DoD and the feds finish their next round of testing on LightSquared’s alternate proposal. With all the politics and money tied up in this thing, it’s going to come up again.