The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday introduced a draft order reallocating a specific portion of the radio spectrum for broadband communications, a change that Department of Defense leaders claim will cause "unacceptable” harm to the GPS system.
The potential move, first reported April 10 by C4ISRNET, has drawn criticism from members of Congress and raised concerns among other government agencies.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai circulated the draft order among his colleagues April 16, according to an agency news release. The five person commission will now have to vote on the measure, with a simple majority needed to implement the agreement. Industry watchers expect that that the measure will pass.
“After many years of consideration, it is time for the FCC to make a decision and bring this proceeding to a close,” Pai said. “We have compiled an extensive record, which confirms that it is in the public interest to grant Ligado’s application while imposing stringent conditions to prevent harmful interference. The draft order that I have presented to my colleagues would make more efficient use of underused spectrum and promote the deployment of 5G and Internet of Things services." (The next generation of technology to boost wireless connectivity capabilities in known as 5G.)
The order, Pai said in the release, includes language to help protect incumbents, such as GPS, by reporting its base station locations and technical operating parameters before kicking off operations, continuously monitoring the transmit power of its base station sites and shutting down operations if necessary in the event of credible reports of interference.
“Although I appreciate the concerns that have been raised by certain Executive Branch agencies, it is the Commission’s duty to make an independent determination based on sound engineering," Pai continued. “And based on the painstaking technical analysis done by our expert staff, I am convinced that the conditions outlined in this draft order would permit Ligado to move forward without causing harmful interference.”
Ligado’s leaders praised the decision in an April 16 statement.
“I have always believed that the L-Band spectrum can make a meaningful difference in our nation’s ability to connect,” said Ivan Seidenberg, chairman of Ligado’s board of directors. “There is no doubt that lower mid-band has a key role to play if we are to build the very best 5G networks, and it is clear now more than ever that we must do just that. The FCC’s decision to move the approval process forward is an important and forward-looking one that will advance the public interest and U.S. global leadership.”
Attorney General Bill Barr also praised the decision in an April 16 release.
“I applaud FCC Chairman Pai’s proposal to make available L-band spectrum, to be used together with C-band spectrum, for deployment of advanced wireless services, including 5G," he said. "As I said in my speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, swift FCC action on spectrum is imperative to allow for the deployment of 5G. This is essential if we are to keep our economic and technological leadership and avoid forfeiting it to Communist China. Freeing up L-band spectrum for use in tandem with the C-band, as the Chairman proposes, should greatly reduce the cost and time it will take to deploy 5G throughout the country and would be a major step toward preserving our economic future. I hope the full Commission moves forward quickly.”
Later in the day, a coalition of commercial interests filed a petition with the FCC to dismiss the application.
“Given the tortured history of this proceeding and the current state of the record, the Commission and all parties concerned would be best served by starting with a clean slate, including Ligado itself," a letter read. "The dockets related to the Ligado proceeding should be closed and Ligado’s pending applications should be dismissed. To the extent that Ligado desires to file new applications to fit some new business vision that is consistent with its existing authority, it of course may do so.”
The letter was signed by 22 organizations, including the Aerospace Industries Association, Lockheed Martin Corp., which has built many of the GPS satellites, and Iridium Communications.
In addition, the move frustrated leaders of defense committees in Congress.
“I’m not pleased, to say the least, that the chairman is pushing forward with a draft order approving Ligado’s application, especially in the midst of a global pandemic," Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an email to C4ISRNET. "This action will amplify, rather than ease, current economic challenges. When people try to push bad policy through in the middle of a crisis, without much coordination with seemingly anyone else, it makes me wonder about their motives. I hope that the other commissioners will listen to the near-unanimous objections from the rest of the federal government – not to mention hundreds of industry leaders – and reject the plan. The risks to our national security are far too great to be ignored, and the precedent this would set is astonishingly misguided.”
The fight over Ligado’s request dates back almost a decade, when the company was known as LightSquared and had different ownership. But objection from the Pentagon has remained steady, with defense leaders saying Ligado’s plan would cause disruptions of the GPS system that could put war fighters in harm’s way.
Supporters, including Pai, have argued that technical changes from Ligado make it so that DoD systems should not be impacted.
Speaking to reporters April 13, Dana Deasy, the Pentagon’s top IT official, made it clear he trusts in the DoD’s evaluation and remains opposed to Ligado’s request.
“We have very strong technical evidence that would suggest moving forward with that proposal would cause harm to the adjacent GPS spectrum,” Deasy said. “Therefore, we continue to believe it’s in the best interests — and I believe I can say this on behalf of all the agencies — it’s in the interest of the government not to pursue the Ligado licensing request.”
The FCC move comes less than 24 hours after three key defense lawmakers, including Inhofe, sent a note to President Donald Trump, asking him to intercede and convince the FCC not to move forward with the plan.
While the president does not have direct control of the FCC, sources tell C4ISRNET that there is a push to support Ligado coming from key administration offices, including the White House National Economic Council. That office is led by Larry Kudlow, who has expressed interest in the economic benefits of expanding the nation’s 5G capabilities.
Mike Gruss is the editor in chief of Sightline Media Group.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.