Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin testifies May 6, 2020, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: SASC

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon says it will formally appeal the Federal Communications Commission’s unanimous approval of the Ligado proposal to create a cellular network by repurposing a portion of radio spectrum adjacent to that used by GPS.

“One avenue could be legislative action,” Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy told reporters May 6 following a lengthy Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where he testified along with other Pentagon officials.

Another channel to try to get the decision reversed would be to petition to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said Deasy. The NTIA is an interagency organization that oversees the government’s spectrum policies.

The deadline for the Pentagon to file an appeal is May 29.

DoD officials are scrambling to figure out how to move forward following the FCC’s April 20 order.

“We were surprised,” said Deasy. DoD for years was able to work through tough contentious issues with the FCC, he said, but on this one the process broke down.

At the SASC hearing, officials presented data that they believe proves that Ligado’s terrestrial network will cause interference both for civilian and military users of GPS.

Neither FCC members nor Ligado executives were invited to testify. SASC Chairman Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the FCC falls under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation but it is in his committee’s purview to discuss “the effects of the FCC’s decision.”

Inhofe fumed about what he called a “failure of the interagency process behind this decision.”

He suggested the FCC intentionally held the vote during the coronavirus pandemic when policy makers were consumed by the crisis. “A few powerful people made a hasty decision over the weekend, in the middle of a national crisis, against the judgment of every other agency involved,” Inhofe said.

The committee’s Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), noted that the SASC had been criticized for holding a hearing during the pandemic on an issue not related to coronavirus.

Ligado Chairman Ivan Seidenberg and CEO Doug Smith released a statement on Wednesday complaining that they had not been asked to participate in the hearing.

“It is unfortunate that members of the Committee will not have the opportunity to hear from any witnesses from Ligado, whose spectrum is at issue, nor from the FCC, whose decision is the subject of your hearing and will only hear from witnesses representing one perspective: the Department of Defense,” Seidenberg and Smith wrote.

They asked that their statement be included in the hearing record. Their paper documents the four-year process by which their license proposal was reviewed and listed the conditions they had to agree to in order to ensure the company’s network would not harm GPS users.

DoD expected FCC to deny Ligado’s request

During the call with reporters, Deasy and deputy CIO Frederick Moorefield gave a detailed account of the interagency review process that started in 2015 after Ligado first submitted its proposal to the FCC.

Deasy and Moorefield said DoD filed multiple objections and leaders sent several letters to the FCC and DoD was under the impression that the FCC would deny Ligado’s license modification request.

According to Seidenberg and Smith, the FCC in 2016 and in 2018 issued public notices when agencies with concerns could submit comments. “DoD never filed any technical information or analysis, and at no point did DoD provide information expressing specific technical concerns to the FCC,” they wrote. “That remains true to this day. In addition, over the past several years we have asked the three DoD witnesses to meet with us in an effort to understand their concerns. They have declined those invitations.”

Ligado claims that a draft of the FCC’s order was given to NTIA and all federal agencies in October 2019.

Moorefield confirmed that DoD did receive a draft of the FCC’s order in October and that the department immediately rejected it.

“They submitted a draft proposal which we objected to,” Moorefield said during the call with reporters. “We provided additional information. Every indication before the day of the ruling was that they were going to deny the request,” he said. “In fact they even articulated that to Ligado. Ligado called us to see if there was any additional information they could provide to turn that decision around. We could not.” So when the decision was delivered on April 20, “it was a total surprise to us,” said Moorefield.

Deasy said the draft of the FCC order was viewed as another step in the comments and review process. “That’s how the process works,” he said. “Just putting out a draft doesn’t imply that they’re at a decision point. It just implies that this is their latest thinking and they’re looking for comments.”

At the SASC hearing, Deasy said his office was “completely caught off guard” by the commission’s order.

Also testifying at the hearing were Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond and retired Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen.

In a presentation to the committee, Griffin cited airplane engines to illustrate the level of noise that Ligado’s network could create for GPS receivers.

“The decibel scale is what we use to measure loudness if you will, whether radio noise or acoustic noise. So, the quiet as possible sound that can be heard might be represented by rustling leaves which are quoted at zero to 10 decibels,” said Griffin. Meanwhile, a jet taking off will create a sound of 140 to 150 decibels. “If you’re standing right next to it, it will blow out your eardrums.”

If Ligado’s network is deployed in the spectrum next to GPS “what we’re trying to do is to hear the sound of leaves rustling through the noise of 100 jets taking off all at once,” Griffin said.

Near the end of the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said he would be surprised if the FCC’s order were overturned. “A reversal would be highly unusual,” said Blumenthal.

After two and a half hours discussing the issue, he said, “we are alarmed and outraged, but where do we go from here?”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...