|The Trump Administration is asking the FCC to reverse its decision to allow a company to use the L-Band for a wireless system that opponents claim will endanger GPS networks.|
This week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a component agency of the Department of Commerce, filed two petitions with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), asking the latter agency to stay its decision allowing Ligado to proceed with wireless service using a satellite-terrestrial network utilizing the L-Band opposed by a number of Trump Administration agencies and a number of key Congressional stakeholders. They argue the order would allow Ligado to set up a system that would interfere with the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Global Positioning System (GPS) and civilian federal agency applications of GPS as well. If the FCC denies these petitions, it is possible NTIA could file suit in federal court to block the FCC’s order and Ligado, and it is also conceivable Congress could fold language into the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, or pass standalone legislation, to block the FCC.
The NTIA stated in its press release that it “petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reconsider its Order and Authorization that conditionally granted license modification applications filed by Ligado Networks LLC…[that] permits Ligado to provide terrestrial wireless services that threaten to harm federal government users of the Global Positioning System (GPS) along with a variety of other public and private stakeholders.”
In the petition for a stay, NTIA asked that “Ligado Networks LLC’s (Ligado’s) mobile satellite service (MSS) license modification applications for ancillary terrestrial operations” be paused until the agency’s petition for reconsideration is decided by the FCC because of “executive branch concerns of harmful interference to federal government and other GPS devices.”
In the petition for reconsideration, the NTIA argued it “focuses on the problems in the Ligado Order that are uniquely related to the interests of Department of Defense (DOD) and other federal agencies and their mission-critical users of GPS.” The NTIA added “that the Commission failed to consider the major economic impact its decision will have on civilian GPS users and the American economy…[and] [a]s the lead civil agency for GPS, DOT explained…Ligado’s proposed operations would disrupt a wide range of civil GPS receivers owned and operated by emergency first responders, among others.”
NTIA made the following arguments in its petition:
- The Ligado Order failed to adequately consider and give appropriate weight to important and valid executive branch concerns about harmful interference to GPS.
- None of Ligado’s latest mitigation proposals, nor the conditions based on them, have been tested or evaluated by any independent party…[and] [a] more scientific way of resolving these technical disputes could be accomplished through further joint FCC-executive branch or independent testing based on Ligado’s actual network and base station parameters.
- The license conditions imposed on Ligado will not adequately mitigate the risk of harmful interference to federal GPS devices, will shift the burden of fixing such interference to federal users, and are otherwise impractical for addressing actual impacts to national security systems. In light of the large number of federal GPS devices that potentially would be impacted by Ligado’s network, the FCC conditions, even if modified, will be a high-cost, time consuming effort for Ligado and federal agencies. As written, the condition requiring the repair or replacement of government receivers, is impractical, infeasible, and potentially illegal.
In late April, the FCC’s “decision authorize[d] Ligado to deploy a low-power terrestrial nationwide network in the 1526-1536 MHz, 1627.5-1637.5 MHz, and 1646.5-1656.5 MHz bands that will primarily support Internet of Things (IoT) services.” The agency argued the order “provides regulatory certainty to Ligado, ensures adjacent band operations, including Global Positioning System (GPS), are sufficiently protected from harmful interference, and promotes more efficient and effective use of [the U.S.’s] spectrum resources by making available additional spectrum for advanced wireless services, including 5G.”
Defense and other civilian government stakeholders remained unconvinced. Also, in late April, the chairs and ranking members of the Armed Services Committees penned an op-ed, in which they claimed “the [FCC] has used the [COVID-19] crisis, under the cover of darkness, to approve a long-stalled application by Ligado Networks — a proposal that threatens to undermine our GPS capabilities, and with it, our national security.” Chairs James Inhofe (R-OK) and Adam Smith (D-WA) and Ranking Members Jack Reed (D-RI) and Mac Thornberry (R-TX) asserted:
- So, we wanted to clarify things: domestic 5G development is critical to our economic competiveness against China and for our national security. The Pentagon is committed working with government and industry to share mid-band spectrum where and when it makes sense to ensure rapid roll-out of 5G.
- The problem here is that Ligado’s planned usage is not in the prime mid-band spectrum being considered for 5G — and it will have a significant risk of interference with GPS reception, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The signals interference Ligado’s plan would create could cost taxpayers and consumers billions of dollars and require the replacement of current GPS equipment just as we are trying to get our economy back on its feet quickly — and the FCC has just allowed this to happen.
The Ligado application was seen as so important, the first hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee held after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was on this issue. Not surprisingly the DOD explained the risks of Ligado’s satellite-terrestrial wireless system as it sees them at some length. Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin asserted at the 6 May hearing:
- The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) conducted a testing program developed over multiple years with stakeholder involvement, evaluating 80 consumer-grade navigation, survey, precision agriculture, timing, space-based, and aviation GPS receivers. This test program was conducted in coordination with DoD testing of military receivers. The results, as documented in the DoT “Adjacent Band Compatibility” study released in March, 2018, demonstrated that even very low power levels from a terrestrial system in the adjacent band will overload the very sensitive equipment required to collect and process GPS signals. Also, many high precision receivers are designed to receive Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals not only in the 1559 MHz to 1610 MHz band, but also receive Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) signals in the 1525 MHz to 1559 MHz band to provide corrections to GPS/GNSS to improve accuracy. With the present and future planned ubiquity of base stations for mobile broadband use, the use of GPS in entire metropolitan areas would be effectively blocked. That is why every government agency having any stake in GPS, as well as dozens of commercial entities that will be harmed if GPS becomes unreliable, opposed the FCC’s decision.
- There are two principal reasons for the Department’s opposition to Ligado’s proposal. The first and most obvious is that we designed and built GPS for reasons of national security, reasons which are at least as valid today as when the system was conceived. The second, less well-known, is that the DoD has a statutory responsibility to sustain and protect the system. Quoting from 10 USC 2281, the Secretary of Defense “…shall provide for the sustainment and operation of the GPS Standard Positioning Service for peaceful civil, commercial, and scientific uses…” and “…may not agree to any restriction of the GPS System proposed by the head of a department or agency of the United States outside DoD that would adversely affect the military potential of GPS.”
A few weeks ago, 32 Senators wrote the FCC expressing their concern that the “Order does not adequately project adjacent band operations – including those related to GPS and satellite communications – from harmful interference that would impact countless commercial and military activities.” They also took issue “the hurried nature of the circulation and consideration of the Order,” which they claimed occurred during “a national crisis” and “was not conducive to addressing the many technical concerns raised by affected stakeholders.” Given that nearly one-third of the Senate signed the letter, this may demonstrate the breadth of opposition in Congress to the Ligado order.
Earlier this week, the House Armed Services Committee held a conference call with “FCC officials” and Inhofe issued a press release, claiming “I was concerned when I asked the FCC officials on the call if they had convinced any other agency this was good policy or if they had made an attempt to receive a classified briefing on the effects of their decision and their answer was no.”
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