How a Slice of Spectrum Split the U.S. Government

Andrey Suslov/

The head of the Federal Communications Commission wants to allow a satellite company access in the interest of 5G despite objections from Defense, Commerce and other departments and agencies. 

Federal departments and agencies are lined up on different sides of a debate pitting the development of fifth-generation telecommunications networks against safety and national security concerns associated with the Global Positioning System. 

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday circulated a draft order to approve satellite communications company Ligado’s application for use of frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum that opponents say would interfere with the reliable operation of GPS applications.

“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,” Pai said in a press release.

The announcement drew plaudits from Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well as Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. The digital rights group Public Knowledge, which usually faces off with the FCC about opening the agency’s spectrum allocation processes up to smaller players in addition to large companies, also supported the effort. 

But Pai was acting against the recommendation of some executive branch agencies represented in an April 10 letter from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The letter warned that approving the application would compromise the integrity of GPS, which is managed by the Air Force and is integral to many commercial uses such as routine banking transactions as well as sensitive military operations.

Ligado’s opponents, including former Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, say the company’s claims its spectrum use will advance 5G are disingenuous.

“While we share the desire to make America a leader in 5G networks, Ligado’s proposal is not essential to winning the 5G competition with China,” wrote Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, in an April 15 letter. The trio of armed services committee leaders appealed to President Trump to intervene and prevent the FCC action. 

“The bands of spectrum Ligado seeks are not the prime bands that the Department of Defense is working hard to share with industry,” the lawmakers wrote, “and there is grave concern across your administration about the harmful impact of this specific plan from the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Interior, Justice, Homeland Security, Energy, and Transportation, as well as NASA, National Science Foundation, U.S. Coast Guard, and FAA.”   

But while Justice is listed as among the agencies’ concerned about the FCC’s decision, Barr himself praised the commission.

“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,” Barr said, invoking another instance where he challenged other elements of the administration. “This is essential if we are to keep our economic and technological leadership and avoid forfeiting it to Communist China.”  

Ligado and supporters of Pai’s action say the Defense Department’s opposition is based on outdated testing from 2016 and that a modified proposal would use lower power levels that aren’t expected to disrupt GPS receivers.

“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 said. “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. For example, the draft order would authorize downlink operations at a power level that represents a greater than 99% reduction from what Ligado proposed in its 2015 application.”  

A Feb. 14 Air Force memo enclosed in the NTIA letter said there are too many interdependencies and that the required amount of testing to assure there would be no disruption would be cost-prohibitive.

“To be clear, every weapons system or platform in the DoD inventory must be tested as an integrated system and it would cause significant operational impact (including substantial retesting) if modernized military GPS receivers require further modification,” the memo reads. “Adding such a requirement to mitigate the adverse effect to the military potential of GPS from this potential interference would be extremely difficult and likely cost-prohibitive given current technology.’ 

A letter to the FCC Wednesday from a coalition of aviation, satellite communications, and weather information entities suggested the FCC terminate the proceedings, which have occupied its docket in various forms for nearly a decade. The group also piled on private-sector concerns about the commission’s intention.

“As Ligado’s proposals have changed, so too have the services operated in adjacent frequency bands,” wrote the coalition, which includes major airlines and aerospace companies. “The aviation industry increasingly relies on L-band satellite communications and location services to ensure safe, efficient, and reliable air travel.”

The draft order was not included on the agenda for the FCC’s next monthly open meeting and the commission provided no timeline for a vote. However, opening up spectrum long-held by government incumbents for public use has been one of the few issues where there is bipartisan agreement among commissioners.