Dayton, Ohio, is perhaps an unlikely city to find itself the epicenter of a years-long, high-tech feud concerning satellite technology. But GOP Reps. Michael Turner and Steve Austria might make sure it is as they face off in a primary next year and look for political advantages in what will likely be a close race.
Dayton is home to several facilities that produce GPS equipment, including Trimble, John Deere and Caterpillar. Add in the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and it’s likely to feel deeply the effect of LightSquared’s planned broadband network — one that the GPS industry and the Air Force warns could interfere with GPS signals.
Dayton is also home to a new Congressional district that Turner and Austria are battling over, thanks to redistricting.
The LightSquared-GPS matter is a long-running dispute pitting the Defense Department, a group of Republican lawmakers and the GPS industry against the White House, Federal Communications Commission and LightSquared.
A core point of dispute is who will pay to repair what experts call defects in the design of GPS receivers that would keep some of them from working properly alongside LightSquared’s network.
It was the FCC during President George W. Bush’s administration that first signed off on a proposal by LightSquared to build its network. It was envisioned as a satellite-based mobile Internet with “tens of thousands” of land-based cell towers to bolster the satellite signal in urban areas. Bringing new, innovative uses of spectrum to fruition was a priority of then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
LightSquared’s network would broadcast on a portion of the spectrum adjacent to where the GPS is, but at much higher power. Following negotiations with the GPS industry in the early 2000s, LightSquared agreed to strictly filter its signal so it wouldn’t “bleed” into the GPS’ portion of the spectrum.
However, many GPS receivers, built when there were no plans to build a powerful network in the adjacent frequency, scan into LightSquared’s proposed territory. Some also scan into the Russian-operated GLONASS network’s territory.
Enter Turner and Austria, both of whom have made plays to raise concern about LightSquared’s effect on the GPS industry.
Turner focused on the issue first, introducing legislation that passed the House in May to protect the GPS network.
Then, in June, Austria surprised Turner with his own legislative proposal to ensure GPS is “preserved and not interfered with by any future expansion of broadband.” His bill’s co-sponsor, Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder, represents Olathe, Kan., home to the international headquarters of Garmin, another GPS company.
The move touched a nerve in Turner’s camp, which saw it as one of many times Austria had jumped on a Turner-led bandwagon.
“I feel like I have an echo,” Turner said.
In the past month Turner has turned up the heat, alleging that the White House pushed Air Force Gen. William Shelton, who heads the military’s Space Command, to alter his Congressional testimony on the matter to be more favorable to LightSquared.
Turner, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which oversees Space Command, did not enlist the help of his fellow Ohio Republican.
“We haven’t been involved in that,” Austria said.
Both Turner and Austria began their work on the issue before Ohio’s new Congressional map was unveiled Sept. 13. Turner cited discussions with military officials as the point when he first became concerned about the issue; Austria cited a meeting with representatives of the GPS industry and assorted stakeholders as his first brush with it.
But the matter has gained fresh significance since then. Turner has cited Shelton’s comments to Members in a meeting last month to accuse the Obama administration of pressuring Shelton to downplay his concerns that LightSquared would interfere with the military’s GPS.
Turner and the other GOP members of his subcommittee asked the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last month to investigate whether the administration was biased toward LightSquared.
In a letter to Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Turner and the others wrote: “We have received reports that numerous witnesses before our committee, and likely therefore other committees, were asked during the administration’s testimony coordination process to include language with which many of them disagreed, and that some ultimately declined to include. We are concerned that this language shows an administration bias in favor of Lightsquared.”
The White House Office of Management and Budget reviews the testimony of all administration witnesses and frequently urges changes to bring statements in line with administration policy.
The dust-up worries some in the telecom world.
“What scares me is, if we politicize spectrum, boy, oh boy, are we gonna have trouble,” said Dale Hatfield, a former top FCC official and expert on spectrum management.
But Shelton and other Defense Department officials have warned that the LightSquared network could harm military GPS capabilities, threatening “national security.”
Such concerns raise delicate questions for GPS makers, such as Garmin and Trimble, and for the Defense Department’s procurement process.
For instance, if LightSquared’s wireless towers could disrupt military GPS use, does that mean potential adversaries could disrupt military GPS use with the same technology?
One former official close to the military’s GPS program called Shelton’s allegations “ridiculous.”
“If you have a military problem with LightSquared, and I’m North Korea, I’d be putting LightSquared in my country,” the official said.
A House Armed Services staffer suggested the problem would affect training exercises more than actual military operations. “There are mitigations you could use that you’re not likely to use in training,” the staffer said.
A Defense Department official said that in combat operations, the military would “eliminate” jammers “by military means” and that it has “countermeasures and alternatives when GPS is interfered with,” but that it would be difficult for those to become the primary modes the military uses during normal operations.
LightSquared representatives and their allies say the GPS industry and the Defense Department have had years to raise concerns about the planned network.
LightSquared also points out that the most vociferous concern is coming from lawmakers who count the GPS industry as key constituencies, such as Turner, Austria and Yoder.
The solution could be a technical fix. LightSquared has already agreed to scale back its plans, reducing the power to its towers and broadcasting its signal further from the GPS’. But if there is momentum from the Shelton flap, and if Turner and Austria continue to revisit the issue in the heat of a primary fight, the dispute might continue to drag out in unpredictable directions.