A bipartisan group of 22 members of the House Armed Services Committee have called on the Federal Communications Commission to reverse its support for Ligado’s L-Band plan, another salvo from Congress’ defense committees as they scramble to block a move the Pentagon says will harm the Global Positioning System.
The letter, sent to the five FCC commissioners, expresses “deep concern” about Ligado’s business plan. It comes a day after a three-hour hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee gave Pentagon officials a public platform to air concerns about the plan, which was approved unanimously by the FCC on April 19.
The letter was signed by 13 Democrats and nine Republicans, including the committee’s chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-WA., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking member. In an exclusive April op-ed with C4ISRNet, both Smith and Thornberry sounded the alarm about the Ligado plan.
The letter also received backing from Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Michael Turner, R-Ohio, the chairman and ranking member of the strategic forces subcommittee; Jim Langevin, D-RI and Elise Stefanik, R-NY., the chair and ranking members of the intelligence, emerging threats, and capabilities subcommittee; John Garamendi, D-Calif., and Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., the chair and ranking member of the readiness subcommittee; and Donald Norcross, D-NJ, the chair of the tactical air and land forces subcommittee.
At its simplest, the fight between Ligado and the Pentagon comes down to which set of testing data one believes. The DoD and those siding with it argue that Ligado’s L-Band plan would create interference with GPS capabilities, harming military use and the economic benefits from the system. Ligado’s case rests on the argument that DoD’s testing does not accurately capture the mitigation plan the company has developed over the years, and argues that there is no true proof that interference will be an issue.
The members make three requests of the FCC commissioners. Notably, the committee has no real authority over the FCC, which falls under the commerce committees in the Senate and the House. A spokesman for the FCC said the commission had received the letter and was receiving it but declined to comment on whether it would respond.
First, the members request copies of “the legal analysis that led the commissioners to their determination despite the unanimous concerns of the national security community,” in order to see if the order is consistent with an fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act requirement to protect GPS devices.
Second, information on whether commissioners received a briefing from DoD on the “classified test data contained in the classified report of DoD testing” included in a 2018 testing report.
And specifically to commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, the Democratic appointees to the commission, the members note that they issued a joint statement of concurrence, which could indicate less than total support for the move. The members wish to know their views on whether national security concerns were addressed, and if the decision-making process was concerning to them.
The letter also takes aim at the claim by Ligado and its supporters that the company’s plan is necessary to grow America’s 5G capability. Pentagon officials also used that strategy during the SASC hearing, in an attempt to undercut the main economic argument for the use of L-Band spectrum.
L-Band is described as the range of frequencies between 1 to 2 GHz. GPS, and other international navigation systems, rely on L-band because it can easily penetrate clouds, fog, rain and vegetation. 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 technological advances and economic opportunities of 5G technologies are exciting. However, we note that no other country is pursuing the use of this portion of the spectrum for 5G, and there are substantial doubts about the technical feasibility of doing so,” the members write. “Our committee is actively seeking solutions that will facilitate and direct DoD to share as much spectrum as possible for commercial use, but the nation faces threats that will require DoD to continue to use parts of the spectrum needed for 5G.”
The other HASC members were Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Rick Larsen, D-Wash., Mike Rogers, R-Ala, Seth Moulton, D-Mass., Mike Conaway, R-Texas, Gil Cisneros, D-Calif, Don Bacon, R-Nebraska., Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, Lori Trahan, D-Mass., Elaine Luria, D-Virginia, Chrissy Houlahan, D-Penn., and Anthony Brindisi, D-NY, also signed the letter.
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.