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.
National Election Complicates FCC Decision-Making
You can imagine the implications if tens of millions of people in the United States find themselves unable to use GPS receivers that they’ve come to depend on. Such an approval could be political suicide for whoever gets stuck with the blame. But on the other hand, LightSquared is promising some real benefits in terms of making broadband available, and killing a national broadband service isn’t likely to be very popular either. But it’s the FCC’s job to make decisions like this, hopefully with the public good in mind for all users.
Then there’s the AT&T merger with T-Mobile. Despite the comments filed with the FCC from random civic groups that AT&T paid for (and for which AT&T even drafted the letters), this merger seems to be widely reviled. Comments opposing the merger are running 10 to 1 against it. It’s very likely that any decision approving the merger will be tied up in court for years. T-Mobile’s existing customers are already casting about for an exit strategy.
Would the FCC approve the merger in the face of this much opposition? They might, if one of them thought it could lead to a cushy job with AT&T as a result of the apparent FCC-communications industry revolving door. Or they might make a decision if they thought it would be politically expedient in time for the next election.
Remember, the Democrats are trying hard not to appear to be anti-business, as Cecelia Kang explained in The Washington Post. While there is strong opposition to the merger, many of those opposing it are natural allies of the Democrats and aren’t likely to vote against an Obama reelection, regardless of the merger.
In addition, despite the millions of T-Mobile customers out there, this is not a unified party. The merger could go through and it’s unlikely to have any direct effect on the election. While there would be a lot of annoyed T-Mobile customers, it’s unlikely that they would blame the Obama administration. So the FCC can approve the merger, and do so with impunity as far as the 2012 elections are concerned. All that would happen is that they could claim that they were pro-business.
The LightSquared decision is another matter. If it turned out that the FCC approved operation of the system and in the process took out a large proportion of GPS receivers in the United States, you can bet that there would be throngs of enraged citizens berating the FCC and complaining loud and long to their Congressional representatives.
GPS is near and dear to consumers’ hearts, it’s essential U.S. military for whom the system was principally created. You can’t navigate airplanes or ships efficiently without it and users aren’t going down without a fight. So you can assume that the FCC will take their time with a LightSquared decision. So don’t expect to hear about one until well after the election.