Three leaders from congressional defense committees increased pressure on the Federal Communications Commission to deny a license that Pentagon leaders fear could harm the Global Positioning System and sent a letter April 15 asking President Donald Trump to prevent the agency from moving forward with the plan.
The letter, signed by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the committee’s ranking member, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, follows a recent report by C4ISRNET that the FCC appears poised to approve the application from Ligado Networks after years of delays.
Privately held Ligado Networks, formerly known as LightSquared, hopes to use spectrum in the L-band frequency that is near where GPS satellites operate. More than 10 federal agencies have opposed the application, led by the Pentagon.
“Ligado’s planned usage will likely harm military capabilities, particularly for the U.S. Space Force, and have major impact on the national economy,” the three congressman wrote. “Further, this plan would cost taxpayers billions of dollars to replace current GPS equipment, which could be rendered useless, and would force American families and businesses to use foreign space-based navigation and timing systems to replace the functions of GPS. This is fundamentally a bad deal for America’s national and economic security, and the timing could not be worse.”
Rep. Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, did not sign the letter.
The correspondence comes five days after the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure teamed up with the chairman of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee to demand answers from Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao about the issue.
“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,” the April 15 letter from the defense leaders reads. “The bands of spectrum Ligado seeks are not the prime bands that the Department of Defense is working hard to share with industry, 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.
“These objections are based on strong evidence from years of testing and analysis that shows that the Space Force’s gold-standard service to the American people will suffer terribly if this proposal is approved.”
The congressmen also asked Trump to discuss the issue with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In response, Doug Smith, Ligado’s chief executive, said in a statement that “the FCC is the expert agency charged by Congress with the exclusive authority to resolve Ligado’s proposal. DOD’s last ditch efforts to interfere with the FCC’s rigorous and exhaustive engineering analysis has nothing to do with science, facts or the law. So that only leaves politics.”
The letter to Trump comes amid renewed focus on 5G technology from key White House administration officials, specifically, from the White House National Economic Council. That office is led by Larry Kudlow, who has expressed interest in the economic benefits of expanding the nation’s 5G capabilities.
Ligado owns a license to operate the spectrum near GPS to build what the firm describes as a 5G network that would boost connectivity for the industrial “internet of things” market. The company uses the SkyTerra-1 satellite, which launched in 2010 and is in geostationary orbit, and it has planned to deploy thousands of terminals to provide connectivity in the continental United States.
Late on April 10, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) officially placed a series of memos sent by the Defense Department on this issue to the FCC’s filing system - memos that had been unreleased until C4ISRNET’s story reported on their contents. In addition, the NTIA associate administrator said in a letter to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai that the organization cannot “reasonably reach” the conclusion that the Pentagon’s concerns have been resolved.
That comment led to a new filing by Ligado on April 12, in which the company blasted the NTIA statement, and the attached notes from the Pentagon, as “simply astounding" and “replete with fearmongering.” The company also argued that the DOD’s conclusions that GPS would be impacted are “based on irrelevant and misleading data,” most notably noting that the Air Force test cited in the service’s memo was based on an older plan the company has since abandoned.
Mike Gruss is the editor in chief of Sightline Media Group.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.