FCC to greenlight Ligado’s 5G network despite strong pushback from the Pentagon

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is poised to approve a spectrum application from Ligado Networks that would allow the company to deploy a wireless communications service that the Pentagon says will drown out GPS signals. 

“After many years of consideration, it is time for the FCC to make a decision and bring this proceeding to a close,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in an April 16 news release. “We have compiled an extensive record, which confirms that it is in the public interest to grant Ligado’s application while imposing stringent conditions to prevent harmful interference.”

Ligado is seeking to repurpose a swath of L-band spectrum for a 5G network focused mainly on connecting smart devices and other internet-of-things sensors. 

The staunchest objections to Ligado’s proposal come from the Defense Department, but industry officials have also voiced concerns. 

Commercial satellite operator Iridium, which has an L-band network of 66 satellites in low Earth orbit, opposes Ligado’s plan. Iridium CEO Matt Desch called Ligado a “5G mirage” in a statement April 14, warning that Ligado could disrupt service to aviation and military customers Iridium serves. 

“A bunch of speculators want to make billions at the expense of our warfighters, supply chains and aircraft navigation systems,” Desch said. “The FCC must resist and deny this petition!”

Ligado operates one geostationary satellite called SkyTerra-1 that covers all of North America, plus Hawaii. The company, formerly called LightSquared, has sought since 2010 to modify its FCC license to create a terrestrial communications network. 

Pai said the FCC is confident that Ligado can proceed with its network without causing disruptions because of changes it made to the system’s design. These include a 99.3% reduction in signal power levels and the introduction of a 23-megahertz guard band separating Ligado signals from those used by GPS satellites, according to the FCC. 

The FCC’s decision to allow Ligado to move forward comes despite strong pushback from the Defense Department, which repeatedly has asked the commission to reject Ligado’s license modification request. 

DoD contends that the Ligado’s proposed network would still interfere with GPS, complicating civil and military applications of the position, navigation and timing network. 

Congressional defense committee leaders on April 15 issued statements in support of DoD’s position. 

“Ligado’s planned usage will likely harm military capabilities, particularly for the U.S. Space Force, and have major impact on the national economy,” wrote Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Lawmakers warned it could cost taxpayers billions of dollars to replace current GPS equipment, which could be rendered useless. They called the Ligado proposal “fundamentally a bad deal for America’s national and economic security.” 

“The timing could not be worse,” they wrote.

The congressional leaders said they support the development of 5G networks but that Ligado’s proposal is “not essential to winning the 5G competition with China.”

“Ligado’s plan would hinder GPS functions for the entire American economy,” the letter said. 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a November 2019 letter to Pai said there were “too many unknowns” with Ligado. “The risks are far too great to federal operations to allow Ligado’s proposed system to proceed,” he said. 

Independent testing and technical data show the “potential for widespread disruption and deviation of GPS services from the proposed Ligado system,” Esper said.

Former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan also sent letters in April 2019 to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and to the FCC in June 2019 pressing DoD’s case.

“The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration on behalf of the executive branch has transmitted to the FCC the unambiguous and unanimous federal government position to deny the Ligado request,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Carver said April 15 in a statement to SpaceNews

Pai, in the FCC’s April 16 statement, insisted that Ligado should get the approvals it has long pursued. 

“Although I appreciate the concerns that have been raised by certain Executive Branch agencies, it is the Commission’s duty to make an independent determination based on sound engineering,” Pai said. “And based on the painstaking technical analysis done by our expert staff, I am convinced that the conditions outlined in this draft order would permit Ligado to move forward without causing harmful interference.”