Pentagon, Senators Blast FCC Decision to Let Company Share GPS Spectrum

Department of Defense Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy holds a media briefing on the COVID-19 Telework Readiness Task Force on April 13.

Department of Defense Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy holds a media briefing on the COVID-19 Telework Readiness Task Force on April 13. Marvin Lynchard/Defense Department

Space Force chief, Pentagon tech leaders, and the Armed Services chairman led calls to reconsider the controversial license for Ligado.

It's rare to watch lawmakers from both parties and Defense Department leaders come together, especially during a global pandemic. But that happened on Wednesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee convened to denounce an FCC decision they said endangers the GPS, and national security. The event wasn’t so much a hearing as a communal wailing and gnashing of teeth in the style of a Greek chorus.

The FCC on April 16 had granted communications company Ligado Networks a license to use a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum reserved for the Global Positioning System, or GPS. If allowed to happen, that decision would gravely imperril national security and the U.S. economy, help China and Russia sell competing geo-spatial services, and cost the Pentagon billions to fix equipment it already owns, witnesses and lawmakers told one another. 

The problem, as the Pentagon’s Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, argued, is that the constellation of satellites that make up the Global Positioning System was designed “under the assumption that GPS… would be placed in a very quiet band of the radio spectrum. That ground-based transmitter would not be allowed in that spectrum because they drown out the very weak signals that come from satellites.” 

Just how weak is that signal? One millionth of a billionth of one watt. 

“At this point, with the FCCs decision, the goal posts have been moved. Now, receivers meant to detect the extremely weak signals from satellites have to cope with very loud signals in the band next door.” 

Griffin described it as being like “trying to hear the sound of leaves rustling through the noise of a hundred jets taking off all at once.”  

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond, top commander of the new U.S. Space Force, said the spectrum area reserved for GPS is the equivalent of the “quiet car” on an Amtrak and is “not for emitters operating on the ground approximately a billion times more powerful than the GPS signal.”

 Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee chairman, called the FCC’s decision “hasty.” He said that “a few powerful people” had waited until the “world was distracted” by the COVID-19 pandemic to push forward with the license grant, which was opposed by every federal agency that weighed in on it. He called it “the most controversial licensing bill in the history of the FCC.” President Donald Trump was unaware of what was going on, Inhofe said. “I’ve had conversations with him; I assure you that’s the case.”

Ligado asserts that portion of the spectrum carved out for the military is wide enough to allow transmitters on the ground and that most of what is reserved by the Defense Department is buffer. They also say that they will pay the Defense Department to fix interruptions in service as a result of their network and that granting the license is essential to keep the U.S. competitive against China in 5G broadband. 

Pentagon CIO Dana Deasy also took issue with Ligado’s assertion that giving it access to that portion of the spectrum was necessary to make the United States a more competitive player in the 5G race against China. He characterized Ligado as a tiny player in the telecommunications market and the risks would “far outweigh the benefits.” He pointed to the Pentagon’s own efforts to experiment with spectrum sharing as the way forward on the issue.

 The GPS signal provides the world with a key timing function for things like stock market exchanges and ATM transactions, in addition to navigation. The witnesses said it would probably hurt U.S. tech and economic competitiveness since it could drive users to GPS alternatives, like the Russian GLONASS system. 

Ligado had proposed that it would help the Pentagon pay for the cost to upgrade its GPS chips in weapons and vehicles to handle the interference. But the witnesses said that there are too many chips to swap out, a job that wouldn’t be complete until 2030, and that the Defense Department would wind up bearing the brunt of the costs. 

“In 1992, an FCC spectrum repurposing decision eliminated the B-2 radar band for DOD.   Moving that radar to a new band took 30 years and $3 billion due to depot cycle scheduling and operational demands,” Ranking member Jack Reed, D-RI, said. 

Neither the Defense Department nor lawmakers want to repeat that mistake.