Can DOD Testimony Change FCC’s Mind on Ligado?

The Senate Armed Services Committee is convening a panel of current and former military officials May 6 in a last-ditch attempt to get the Federal Communications Commission to change its mind about approving a Ligado Networks plan opposed by the Pentagon.

Committee leaders believe the FCC ignored the nearly unanimous concerns raised by the rest of the federal government, a SASC spokeswoman said. The goal of this week’s hearing is to amplify those warnings that the commission may have overlooked.

Defense Department Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy; Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin; National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board Chairman Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard commandant; and Space Force boss Gen. Jay Raymond are expected to testify at the hearing.

On one hand, Ligado argues its use of the electromagnetic spectrum’s L-Band will further fifth-generation wireless networking, and that it will take steps to reduce potential interference with GPS satellite signals. On the other hand, DOD believes those measures won’t be enough to protect the GPS enterprise that enables everything from military navigation to ATM machines.

“This decision was an extremely close call. While many stakeholders now back the ancillary terrestrial service that is the subject of this order, others remain concerned about the potential for harmful interference,” FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks said. “In the end, we are compelled to support the expert technical analysis done by the Federal Communications Commission’s engineering staff.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper argues the methodology used for that analysis was flawed, and understated the risk posed to military assets. “Ultimately, this will cause harmful interference to the GPS network, jeopardizing our nation’s security, prosperity, and way of life,” Esper told reporters on May 5.

Military officials have said they need to see more analysis that proves Ligado systems won’t reduce the effectiveness of GPS signals, and the Air Force is mulling how it could fix possible interference.

“The problem is that ground-based 5G signals would be so strong that they would overwhelm other pre-existing systems’ ability to receive their respective data streams,” Paul Selva, who retired last year as the four-star vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a recent op-ed in The Hill. “To put this in perspective, a GPS set antenna would have to contend with a Ligado signal that is at least 1.7 billion times stronger than the received GPS signal.”

“Once approved, there are no mechanisms to limit the commercial development of the allocated spectrum,” Selva added. “Then, the burden to identify and mitigate interference will be placed upon the users of adjacent frequencies, military and civil alike.”

SASC is in talks with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which holds oversight responsibility for the FCC, about potential next steps if the FCC does not change course, the SASC spokeswoman said. Bill text to study and mitigate the effects of Ligado’s plan on the GPS constellation could land in the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill, though Senate Commerce Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) would need to agree because the matter falls under their jurisdiction.

Past that, lawmakers may draft legislation to look at the FCC’s decision-making process overall. It’s possible that text could restrict or reshape some of the commission’s regulatory powers. Members of Congress could also petition the White House to intervene on the Pentagon’s behalf.

“Both publicly and privately, the Department of Defense has expressed serious concerns about the risks Ligado’s planned usage poses both to military equipment and ancillary equipment used by the military, industry, and everyday Americans as well,” SASC Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in an April 30 press release. “Given that the FCC has made its decision, it’s critical our members understand the national security implications and what steps the military will need to take to mitigate these effects if the decision is not reversed.”