LightSquared Claims Conflict of Interest in Federal Analysis

LightSquared, told by a federal review board that its planned hybrid satellite-LTE network is not feasible, wants an investigation of one member, whom the company says serves on the board of a GPS company opposing the LightSquared network.

The company was told Friday that there is no practical way to solve interference between that network and GPS, which could destroy the startup carrier's plans for a terrestrial mobile network.

But now LightSquared is suggesting a conflict by one of the evaluators. The mobile broadband startup petitioned the Inspector General of NASA to investigate Bradford Parkinson, the vice chairman of a board that advises the government on GPS. Parkinson should be removed from discussions about potential interference between GPS and LightSquared's proposed LTE (Long Term Evolution) network because he is also a director of GPS vendor Trimble Navigation, LightSquared says in its petition.

Seeks Mobile Broadband Network

LightSquared wants to build a mobile broadband network that uses both LTE on the ground and satellites in space, providing nationwide U.S. coverage with faster speeds in more populated areas. It would sell access to either or both of these networks wholesale to other carriers. The planned LTE network has come under attack because of tests that show interference between that system and GPS.

The company is going all-out in fighting opposition to its plan. Last week, Philip Falcone, the head of parent company Harbinger Capital Partners, and two LightSquared officials met with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to explain modifications to the plan that LightSquared said will significantly cut the potential for interference. But pressure is growing on the company, including from a provision added to the 2012 Defense Authorization Act signed into law last month that would require that interference issues with military GPS be resolved before the network goes live. LightSquared says it has enough financing to wait several quarters for approval if necessary.

The Coalition to Save Our GPS, an industry group that includes Trimble, called the complaint on Thursday an act of desperation.

"LightSquared has submitted proposal after proposal trying to address the interference problem, each time claiming a 'solution.' Each of these claims has subsequently been proven false by extensive, independent testing. It appears that LightSquared has now run out of solutions and has nothing left but baseless allegations about process," the Coalition said in a statement attributed to spokesman Dale Leibach.

Parkinson's dual affiliations are known by everyone involved in the LightSquared review process, the group said. "Because the PNT advisory board consists of leading experts for the U.S. and international GPS manufacturing and user community, as well as other affected industries, associations with manufacturers are entirely appropriate," the Coalition said.

The NASA Inspector General's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Conflict Over Frequencies

Trimble sells products and services for precision GPS and has been one of the most prominent opponents of LightSquared's network plan. LightSquared said deployment of its network could force Trimble to adapt its equipment to stop using frequencies licensed to LightSquared, a concern that LightSquared said Trimble has acknowledged. Parkinson sits on the board of Trimble, so he should have recused himself from the government's decision-making process on the LTE proposal, LightSquared said.

"As a matter of law, it is undisputed that Parkinson owes fiduciary duties to Trimble Navigation that may conflict with his ability to act with complete impartiality upon matters before the Advisory Board concerning LightSquared," LightSquared General Counsel Curtis Lu wrote in the petition.

In an interview on Thursday, LightSquared Senior Vice President for Communications Terry Neal was more blunt.

"He used the imprimatur of an advisory board to mount a public campaign against LightSquared," Neal said. "He and his company have a direct financial interest in this matter."

Parkinson is vice chairman of the National Space-Based Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board, which advises the government's PNT Executive Committee, a body charged with coordinating the government's work on GPS. He was the chief architect of GPS and its original program director in 1972, according to a biography on Trimble's website.

LightSquared turned to the NASA Inspector General, Paul Martin, because it said NASA has oversight over the PNT Advisory Board. The board has been involved in the review of LightSquared's proposal at several points, including hearings in which Parkinson has participated, LightSquared said. Other members of the Advisory Board may also have conflicts of interest, according to the petition. One member of the board has recused himself, but NASA has not given any member a waiver from conflict-of-interest rules.

While serving on the PNT Advisory Board, Parkinson has participated in meetings about LightSquared's bid for FCC approval and made recommendations against the company, as well as trying to undermine the company in the eyes of other federal agencies, the petition said.

However, the company said it was not singling out Parkinson.

"The process was compromised," Neal said. "It goes much further than Parkinson."

Thursday's petition is one of several steps LightSquared will take to try to ensure a more fair and open decision-making process on its proposal, Neal said. Among other things, the company said it has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for information about contacts between various federal agencies and Trimble, GPS vendor Garmin, and the Coalition to Save Our GPS.

"We think if we are treated fairly, we will get the approvals we need," Neal said.

The complaint is unlikely to help LightSquared get its network up, said analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. If the process of reviewing its bid were found improper, redoing it would take a long time, he said.

"The question is, does LightSquared have another 12 months to live?" Entner said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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