FCC stands by Ligado decision as lawmakers step up criticism

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The FCC pushed back on new criticism from the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission on May 27 again defended its decision to approve Ligado Networks’ use of a portion of the L-band spectrum despite strong opposition from the Pentagon and other government agencies.

The FCC pushed back on new criticism from the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. Committee leaders on Wednesday accused the FCC of issuing the order without having received classified briefings from DoD or other agencies on the impact of Ligado’s wireless network on the Global Positioning System that also operates in the L-band spectrum.

SASC Chairman Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in a statement said FCC officials on a May 21 call with the House Armed Services Committee “indicated no one at the FCC received any classified briefings from these agencies on the harm that could be done if Ligado’s application was approved.”

Inhofe cited comments by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces. Turner said he asked the FCC officials on the May 21 call “if they had convinced any other agency this was good policy or if they had made an attempt to receive a classified briefing on the effects of their decision and their answer was no.”

Inhofe said that if the FCC had reviewed classified materials related to the Ligado application, “I highly doubt they would have proceeded with their order.”

An FCC spokesperson said in a statement to SpaceNews that the commission does not see how these allegations change any of the actual facts in the case.

“The FCC is required by law to make its decision based on the facts in the record, and federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, were provided with multiple opportunities to put whatever facts they believed to be relevant into the record, including classified information, which the Commission has a process in place to protect,” said the spokesperson.

“We are not aware of the FCC refusing any request by the Department of Defense to provide a briefing related to this matter,” the statement said. “To the extent any federal agency opposed to the Ligado application chose not to share information with the Commission, that was the agency’s decision and suggests that it did not believe that the information in question would bolster its case.”

Following DoD’s objections to the FCC’s order, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on May 22 formally petitioned the FCC to reverse its April 20 decision to grant a spectrum license to Ligado to build a terrestrial wireless network.

Ligado in a statement last week said DoD’s complaint is not based on any real threat to GPS but on a desire to keep the spectrum for its own use. Ligado noted that members of Congress, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and several consumer and and wireless industry groups have “weighed in to support the FCC and greater utilization of the L-band.”

Ajit’s response to HASC Chairman

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a May 26 letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said “the fact that another agency does not like the end result in this proceeding says nothing whatsoever about the process the FCC followed.”

In the letter, Ajit said the FCC “has an important job to do with regard to connectivity generally and 5G specifically — we must position ourselves as a global leader in innovation, technology, and the spectrum resources to support these efforts … Our work on the L-band is part of this effort.”

Ajit said the Ligado order “included strict conditions to ensure that GPS operations continue to be protected from harmful interference.”  To protect GPS users, Ligado has to reduce transmission power by 99%, must establish a 23 megahertz guard band using its own licensed spectrum and must consult federal agencies before it starts deploying its network.

The letter also said there is a misconception that the L-band decision allows shared use of spectrum. The FCC does not allow any spectrum sharing between Ligado and GPS, Ajit said. He noted that spectrum in this band has been licensed to Ligado and predecessor companies for over 30 year and for terrestrial communications use since 2004.