DOD Wants FCC to Reverse Ligado Decision

DOD Wants FCC to Reverse Ligado Decision

DOD witnesses told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) today that the FCC’s approval of Ligado’s use of spectrum close to that used by the GPS system was flawed and want it reversed. Ligado wants to build a terrestrial 5G system using frequencies in the L-band assigned to satellite services including GPS.  DOD insists it will interfere with GPS, but the FCC argues its order requires Ligado to mitigate any such impacts and can move forward.

SASC does not have jurisdiction over the FCC, but Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) said the committee does have a responsibility to oversee the impact of the decision on national security.  Three of the witnesses were from DOD (CIO Dana Deasy, USD/R&E Mike Griffin, and USSPACECOM Commander and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond).  The fourth, Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), chairs the interagency National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board.

The Senate Commerce Committee oversees the FCC and its chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), is also a member of SASC.  He was busy chairing his own committee’s hearing on the state of the aviation industry in the COVID-19 pandemic this afternoon, but joined the SASC hearing towards the end.

Deasy’s focus was that the decision was a surprise to DOD, coming after tests by the Department of Transportation (DOT) showed the interference Ligado’s system would create to GPS and more than a year of interaction with the FCC that left DOD believing no decision was near.  Instead, according to Deasy and Inhofe, the FCC abruptly made the decision over a weekend. Inhofe called it “unprecedented.”  He introduced letters from the National Defense Industrial Association, the Aerospace Industries Association, the Air Line Pilots Association, the Transportation Construction Coalition and a general industry coalition, all representing dozens of companies opposing the FCC decision.

Other federal agencies also oppose it, not just DOD.

The FCC manages use of the spectrum by the commercial sector, while the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the Department of Commerce (DOC), does the same for government users.  On April 10, 2020, NTIA sent a letter to the FCC transmitting expressions of opposition to Ligado’s application from DOD including individual services, DOT and its Federal Aviation Administration, DOC, Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security including the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Energy, NASA, and the National Science Foundation.

Still, when the FCC issued its ruling, Secretary of State Pompeo and Attorney General Barr praised the decision even though their departments had opposed it. Media reports also said the White House was in favor of Ligado, though Inhofe asserted today that President Trump himself was not aware of the decision.

Griffin explained that satellite services are grouped into specific bands because the signals are weak by the time they reach Earth and need to be protected from stronger emissions from terrestrial systems.  But Ligado wants to operate a terrestrial service in the middle of a band assigned to satellite services, including GPS. Ligado agreed to reduce its power level, but still would be at 10 decibels.  He said Ligado would be like the noise of 100 jets drowning out the “rustling leaves” of GPS, imperiling not only national security, but an industry worth $100 billion today and forecast to grow to more than $145 billion by 2025.

Credit;: Mike Griffin testimony to Senate Armed Services Committee, May 6, 2020.

Congressional opposition to the Ligado decision is bipartisan and bicameral. Inhofe and SASC Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) together with their House counterparts, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Mac Thornberry (R-TX) published a joint statement on April 22.

On the other hand, Senators from both sides of the aisle at today’s hearing were less sure, asking why the FCC would have unanimously ruled in favor of Ligado if the situation is as dire as DOD maintains.  Some asked why no FCC witnesses were there to present their case, but Inhofe explained SASC has no jurisdiction over them.

Wicker was one of those who appeared unconvinced.  Whether he will hold his own hearing remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Deasy said he is working with NTIA to mount an appeal of the FCC decision through a petition to reconsider.

Ligado is the successor to Lightsquared, which failed in its attempt to get approval to use this spectrum earlier in the decade. That proposal was to use a primarily satellite-based system that would have a terrestrial adjunct.  The satellite portion of the system was not at issue, only the terrestrial cell towers because they would have interfered with GPS.  Ligado’s application is only for the terrestrial system.  Griffin stressed that operating terrestrial systems, with their high power levels, in portions of the spectrum set aside for satellite systems with their weak signals inevitably will result in harmful interference.  In addition to the specific concerns about Ligado, he worried it may set a precedent for other terrestrial services to encroach on satellite bands as demand for 5G services grows.

The FCC’s decision requires Ligado to mitigate any interference it causes to government equipment, but Reed said the mitigation was for a user experiencing interference to call an 800 number to report it.  He called that “absurd,” rhetorically asking if a warfighter  in a war zone would be expected to do that. Ligado’s emitters would only be located within the United States, but Raymond pointed out a diminished GPS system would have a “significant” and “unacceptable” impact on multiple national DOD mission areas including “our most important mission, Homeland Defense.”

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.