Rest Of The World Is Beating Us In Wireless Broadband Access

If you've ever been to Europe (I haven't, but lots of my friends have), you know that wireless broadband access is everywhere and often free -- unlike here, where it's clustered in the cities, with frequently spotty coverage, and always expensive. The special interests prefer to keep it that way, and that appears to be behind an all-out assault on a company named LightSquared:

LightSquared sent the satellite for its wholesale wireless network in 2010, but has had trouble getting federal approval for the project due to a dustup over GPS and other political woes. Now the start-up has decided to launch a political counteroffensive.

Already mired in a complicated technological debate over how to prevent its network from interfering with GPS, the wireless start-up LightSquared has faced withering political criticism over the past few months. Now the company has a message for its detractors: Two can play that game.

LightSquared is struggling to launch a nationwide, wholesale wireless network based partially on satellites and had been focused on the technical aspects of its argument -- much of it over whether the company’s planned network would interfere with existing GPS technology. But after a flurry of unflattering headlines alleging that the company won Federal Communications Commission approval for its plans through campaign contributions and backroom deals, LightSquared is now trying to shift the focus to its critics.

LightSquared has hired dozens of top lobbyists, including at least seven former elected officials -- including ex-House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri; former Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas; and Democratic former Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania.

Most recently, LightSquared has taken aim at Bradford Parkinson, known as one of the founders of GPS and a member of the National Space-Based Positioning Navigation & Timing Advisory Board, which advises the government on GPS issues. Parkinson is also an investor and a member of the board of Trimble, a GPS manufacturer that has led the fight against LightSquared’s plans.

That, LightSquared officials contend, is a conflict of interest.

“It seems highly incongruous and even inappropriate to us that the government's top outside adviser on GPS matters would be simultaneously helping to oversee the same company that is leading the public-relations and lobbying campaign against LightSquared, and that has a financial interest in the outcome of that battle,” said LightSquared spokesman Terry Neal.

LightSquared is also pushing back at members of the GPS industry who have argued that LightSquared is trying to game the political system for financial gain.

On Wednesday, LightSquared released publicly available information that it had compiled showing top Trimble executives dumping millions of dollars in company shares the month after LightSquared received conditional FCC approval for parts of its plan in January.

Rep. Tom Petri and Sen. Chuck Grassley, both Republicans, have gone after the FCC for how it's handled the LightSquared process. (Coincidentally, both of them got some hefty contribtions from groups with GPS ties, but I'm sure it has nothing to do with their outrage.)

It's one of those technical stories that's hard for lay people like me to unravel, involving allegations that LightSquared will ruin GPS signals, and even includes some dark Solyandra-type smears against Obama from Republicans (because LightSquared made Democratic contributions).

I'm not saying LightSquared is the solution. As I say, it's complicated. All I know is, we desperately need actual competition to drive wireless broadband prices down, and the big money interests don't want that to happen. So sign the petition to ask Congress to do something about it.

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