The U.S. Air Force is in the early stages of developing strategies to “mitigate” the damage expected to occur to Global Positioning System capabilities following the Federal Communication Commission’s approval of a spectrum request by Ligado Networks, according to the service’s top uniformed officer.
On Wednesday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said he was “very concerned about the Ligado decision,” adding those concerns are shared with Gen. Jay Raymond, the first head of the U.S. Space Force.
“We as a nation, and I would offer as a [world], rely on GPS to do so much that affects far more than military operations,” Goldfein said. “This is our quality of life. This is how we run businesses. This is how we fly airplanes. This is the ATM that requires that timing signal to get money. This is the blue dot on your phone that allows you to get from point A to point B, so we have come to just rely completely on GPS.”
On Monday, the FCC voted 5-0 in favor of Ligado’s plan, which would allow the company to use L-band — a range of frequencies between 1 to 2 GHz, on which GPS relies in order to penetrate weather and dense vegetation. The company wants to use L-band as part of its plan to expand America’s 5G capabilities, or next-generation connectivity.
The Defense Department and other government agencies have opposed the proposal for almost a decade over concerns it would impact GPS. C4ISRNET first broke the news April 10 that the FCC would move forward with Ligado’s request.
“The best way I’ve heard it described — I’m a philosophy major and this works for me — if you’re trying to have a quiet conversation and in the next room is a 500-watt speaker blaring music at you: That’s a visual of what potentially could be the interference with this GPS signal that absolutely has got to be pristine, and the world relies on," Goldfein said. "So I am very concerned about it, and [Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force Gen. John “Jay”] Raymond and I are looking at different mitigation steps.”
Goldfein didn’t go into details about what those steps might entail. Later in the day, Mark Lewis, the Defense Department’s director of research and engineering for modernization, said he hadn’t talked with Goldfein yet on next steps, but expressed similar sentiments about the Ligado plan.
“It’s obviously a concern. Our ability to operate not only in space but in spectrum is critical. So I guess what I would tell you is right now we’re considering what the implications will be and considering what the impacts will be,” Lewis said at an event hosted by the Mitchell Institute.
It’s something “we’re working pretty actively,” Lewis added.
Outside of the technical mitigation efforts, there may be policy efforts underway to try and block L-band use by Ligado. In an exclusive op-ed for C4ISRNET, leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees warned that Ligado’s plan could ultimately “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.”
“We encourage the FCC to withdraw its approval of Ligado’s application and take this opportunity to work with the NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] and other federal agencies, including the departments of Defense and Transportation, to find a solution that will both support commercial broadband expansion and protect national security assets. Moreover, we expect the FCC to resolve Department of Defense concerns before moving forward, as required by law,” the lawmakers wrote.
“If they do not, and unless President [Donald] Trump intervenes to stop this from moving forward, it will be up to Congress to clean up this mess.”
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.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.