Right now, the coronavirus is rightly our country’s most immediate concern. But the Federal Communications Commission has used the crisis, under the cover of darkness, to approve a long-stalled application by Ligado Networks — a proposal that threatens to undermine our global positioning system (GPS) capabilities, and with it, our national security.
The FCC granted Ligado (formerly known as LightSquared) permission to repurpose spectrum adjacent to GPS frequencies for a terrestrial cellular network — framing this proposal as essential to “winning the race to 5G.” But what Ligado has done is conflate two different and important spectrum issues: the sharing of mid-band 5G spectrum by the Department of Defense and commercial industry, and harmful interference of Ligado’s signal with the low-band GPS signals used in nearly every aspect of daily life. The result: some members of Congress, members of the administration, and the public are now confused about the real and immediate impacts of Ligado’s proposal.
So, we wanted to clarify things: domestic 5G development is critical to our economic competiveness against China and for our national security. The Pentagon is committed working with government and industry to share mid-band spectrum where and when it makes sense to ensure rapid roll-out of 5G.
[Editor’s note: C4ISRNET first broke the news that the FCC would move forward with Ligado’s request on April 10.]
The problem here is that Ligado’s planned usage is not in the prime mid-band spectrum being considered for 5G — and it will have a significant risk of interference with GPS reception, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The signals interference Ligado’s plan would create could 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 — and the FCC has just allowed this to happen.
Think of all the ways Americans use GPS each and every day. GPS satellites provide free precise timing and navigation that powers thousands of functions: making financial transactions at our banks, keeping the lights on in our homes, traveling around the country — the list goes on and on. Studies show GPS satellites contribute at least $1 billion to our economy every single day. GPS also forms the backbone of countless military operations and applications — to get supplies to our war fighters on the battlefield, guide unmanned aircraft and vehicles, target its precision weapons, and much more.
It would be practically impossible to identify and repair or replace all of the potentially adversely affected receivers. It would “needlessly imperil [Department of Defense] GPS-dependent national security capabilities,” per Secretary Esper, putting the war fighter, U.S. Space Force, military readiness, and even the defense of our homeland at risk. American families and businesses would lose coverage or be forced to use systems from our strategic competitors, China and Russia, jeopardizing our global leadership in precision timing.
We’re not the only ones with serious concerns. Nine federal departments and agencies have completed extensive engineering tests and analyses on Ligado’s proposal; and the results are clear: Ligado’s plan would interfere with millions of GPS receivers across the nation. The Departments of Defense, Commerce, Interior, Justice, Homeland Security, Energy, and Transportation — as well as NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration — all strongly object to Ligado’s plan. What kind of precedent is the FCC setting by disregarding near unanimous opposition of federal agencies to this proposal?
It’s not just the government, either — industry leaders representing GPS, satellite communications services, automotive companies, commercial aviation, and weather data have also voiced concerns over Ligado’s proposal.
We would expect that the FCC listen not just to Ligado’s privately funded research, but also broad-based, in-depth research from experts in national security and other fields. This makes it all the more confusing — why is the FCC ignoring all the evidence, especially now, at the height of a global crisis?
The Ligado application highlights the need to use a technical, data-driven approach to balance the use of the spectrum between war fighter requirements and commercial needs, rather than strong-arming a proposal through the process like the FCC just did. We can expect this issue to be an ongoing national security challenge. If we want to strike a responsible balance moving forward, the U.S. government must modernize the infrastructure needed to manage and share spectrum efficiently, promote policy and technology innovation, and improve the ability of military systems to operate alongside commercial systems.
Considering the risks, it’s clear the FCC commissioners made the wrong decision regarding Ligado’s plan, which will set a disastrous precedent while impeding ongoing work on spectrum sharing. The vulnerabilities to our national and economic security are not worth the risk, particularly for a band of spectrum that isn’t necessary to secure a robust 5G network.
We encourage the FCC to withdraw its approval of Ligado’s application and take this opportunity to work with the NTIA 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.
If they do not, and unless President Trump intervenes to stop this from moving forward, it will be up to Congress to clean up this mess.
Senator Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., is the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.