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Coming Out of the Black

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With major websites going dark to protest the looming SOPA legislation this week, it's a good time to note that another of the nation's hottest technology issues is quickly moving from push to shove, complete with accusations of double-dealing government agencies and conflicts of interest.

At first, the ongoing controversy over an effort to solve America's looming spectrum crunch looks like some sort of Republican blue-sky, free-market scenario: a private firm backed by a longtime GOP campaign contributor puts tens of billions of dollars into a solution (and launches a satellite), goes through 8 years of regulatory process beginning under George W. Bush, signs agreements with 35 partners and is poised to create real competition in the wireless marketplace while also creating thousands of jobs.

It should be a Republican case study of private sector infrastructure. Instead, it turns out that some powerful Republicans in some agricultural states have supporters who have been poaching into the spectrum LightSquared owns and intends to use for a new nationwide broadband network. Essentially, they've been trespassing on LightSquared's property for years and are now upset at being evicted. As a result, the new system causes issues for the GPS system -- the positioning network uses some of the LightSquared spectrum to improve accuracy.

To understand just how ridiculous this is, you have to understand that the LightSquared initiative is a game changer. It builds on the satellite network already familiar to boaters and first responders to create a national wireless network with no dead zones -- if you have access to the American sky, you have access to your phone and the Internet.

Enter the politics.

While LightSquared now says it has fixed most of the GPS interference problems, including issues with "high precision" GPS devices , the GPS industry said "no way," and -- finding that perhaps the FCC was not buying the story -- spent millions to expand the debate into Congress and anywhere else it could find, like the Department of Defense.

The gloves came off this week when LightSquared said that some government testing by the nation's Air Force Space Command on behalf of a committee looking into the issue was "rigged by manufacturers of GPS receivers and government end users to produce bogus results, and revealed details of the testing to document its accusations."

The company also called out conflicts of interest asking,"Isn't it a violation of conflict of interest laws for representatives of GPS manufacturers to sit on the PNT advisory board and play a central role in its consideration of LightSquared when those companies are actively lobbying on the same issue?"

Senior executives of the company also went very public this week, holding a call with reporters to outline how they feel "GPS industry insiders and government end users manipulated the latest round of tests to generate biased results."

The call included regulatory heavyweight, Edmond Thomas, former chief engineer at the FCC, who was on hand to explain "how fair and accurate testing should be conducted."

LightSquared argues the tests used select devices and random power levels chosen to ensure failure, and that's why there's no transparency and why the company's own independent lab results are being ignored.

As a legislator from a rural state, this tennis match between sides is immensely frustrating. In Maine, we used Recovery Act funds to invest in the Three Ring Binder project that is bringing broadband to parts of the state that did not have it. But there are still places that need broadband for businesses to compete, their kids to learn and to bridge a very real digital divide.

It's time to end the political theatre and put the discussion squarely back where it belongs: solving the physics problem. The "he said-she said" match may produce great headlines, but leaves real people and real businesses facing a spectrum-induced blackout that makes the SOPA protest look convenient.

Diane Russell is a Maine State Representative serving part of Portland. She was recently named as the Most Valuable State Representative by The Nation in its 2011 Progressive Honor Roll.

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