FCC Vacancies Could Delay ATandT, LightSquared Approvals
News Analysis: AT&T-T-Mobile merger approval and permission for LightSquared to operate its broadband wireless networking could be delayed while the Federal Communications Commission replaces departed membership.
Federal Communications Commission approval of two big decisions are
even more uncertain since one member resigned and another intends to
leave later this year, almost certainly before either AT&T's
proposed $39 billion merger with T-Mobile or LightSquared's application to operate a wireless broadband network near the GPS bands comes to a vote.
Currently one of the two Republican seats on the FCC is vacant following Meredith Baker's resignation to accept a job with Comcast shortly after she and three other commissioners voted in favor of that company's acquisition of NBC.
Michael Copps, one of the three Democratic commissioners, will be leaving later this year. That will leave three commissioners running the FCC who could decide these issues without filling the vacancies, but considering the strong opposition to the proposals, it's unlikely that the FCC would move forward until both seats are filled. Copps has consistently been more pro-consumer and pro-net neutrality than the other commissioners, but political party affiliation has never been a good predictor of how the commissioners will vote on any given issue.
Adding to the confusion that's sure to be taking place at the FCC, each commissioner has their own staff of advisers and assistants. Sometimes these advisers, especially the technical advisers, are taken from within the ranks of FCC employees, but sometimes they're not. This means that when new commissioners are named, not only do they need to learn the issues about which they'll be voting, but so do the members of their respective staffs. With cases as complex as the AT&T-T-Mobile merger or the worries about the LightSquared network interfering with GPS receivers this could take some time.
What this means is that despite the desire of AT&T to get their merger done by March 2012, there's a high likelihood that it won't happen by then. With the LightSquared GPS interference issue, things are even more in doubt. There clearly needs to be more testing of the revised solution that LightSquared says will solve the GPS problems. That testing can go ahead regardless of who's on the commission. But after the testing is done, another report will have to be written, taking up even more time.
At some point there will need to be a decision by the full commission as to whether LightSquared's plan interferes with GPS navigation to the point that it can't be used or a decision that it doesn't. This could be a very politically sensitive decision considering how broad based GPS use is. In addition Congress is taking a keen interest in the decision and is looking for guarantees that the LightSquared network won't interfere with GPS.