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FCC approves Ligado broadband network, DOD and GPS industry react

April 20, 2020  - By
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The five-member Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously to approve an order to allow Ligado Networks to deploy a low-power nationwide 5G network.

The approval comes despite objections from the U.S. Defense Department (DOD), other federal agencies and major U.S. airlines, all of whom are concerned about near-band interference with GPS.

The FCC said the approval order included stringent conditions aimed at ensuring GPS would not experience harmful interference.

“After many years of consideration, it is time for the FCC to make a decision and bring this proceeding to a close,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai 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 services. According to the FCC, the order will “promote more efficient and effective use of our nation’s spectrum resources and ensure that adjacent band operations, including the Global Positioning System (GPS), are protected from harmful interference.”

In response, members of both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and other defense advocates are considering legislative action to overturn the order.

Defense & Transportation departments object

Photo: gorodenkoff/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: gorodenkoff/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Two areas that rely heavily on the integrity of GPS signals include defense and transportation. The DOD issued a joint statement with the Department of Transportation (DOT) criticizing the FCC ruling.

“Americans rely on our Global Positioning System (GPS) each day for many things: to locate citizens in need of emergency assistance through our E-911 system, to secure our financial system, to order and receive shipments, to travel by car for work and leisure, to facilitate commercial trucking and construction work, and even to make a simple cellphone call. Our departments rely on GPS each day for all those reasons as well to coordinate tactical national security operations, launch spacecraft, track threats, and facilitate travel by air and sea. The proposed Ligado decision by the Federal Communications Commission will put all these uses of GPS at risk.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) released a letter he sent to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai raising concerns about Ligado’s 5G network.

“While the United States must be a leader in the implementation of 5G networks, our creation of these networks must not hamper our military’s operational capacity in any way. China’s aggressive, global promotion of its 5G companies presents a considerable security challenge that must be addressed. However, Ligado’s proposal, which seeks a portion of spectrum adjacent to that used for Global Positioning Systems, poses an even larger security risk.

“The Department of Defense has been clear and direct: providing this license to Ligado would cause unacceptable operational impacts and adversely affect the military’s use of GPS. The military’s seamless use of GPS is vital to our national security. Our service members rely on GPS satellites for critical precision timing and navigation, and thousands of weapons systems are embedded with GPS signals.

“While I strongly support development of the world’s most robust, safe and secure network, using L-band spectrum in such close proximity to critical GPS, as Ligado’s proposal requires, carries an unacceptable risk that far outweighs the possibility of a 5G network.”

‘Risk of crippling’ GPS

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said via Twitter on Friday that the “Ligado proposal would needlessly imperil GPS-dependent national security capabilities. The Department continues to support domestic 5G options, but not at the risk of crippling our GPS networks. Nearly a dozen other federal agencies have joined us in opposing this proposal.”

In to the FCC news release, Pai stated:

“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. 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. For example, the draft order would authorize downlink operations at a power level that represents a greater than 99% reduction from what Ligado proposed in its 2015 application.”

Image: A-Digit/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Image: A-Digit/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

The release also provided this background about the Ligado proposal, and the “conditions” under which the FCC decided to approve it.

In recent years, Ligado has amended its application to significantly reduce the power levels of its base stations from 32 dBW to 9.8 dBW (a reduction of 99.3%). Ligado has also committed to providing a significant (23 megahertz) guard-band using its own licensed spectrum to further separate its terrestrial base station transmissions from neighboring operations in the Radionavigation-Satellite Service allocation. As such, Ligado is now only seeking terrestrial use of the 1526-1536 MHz, 1627.5-1637.5 MHz, and 1646.5-1656.5 MHz bands. The Order is conditioned to reflect these technical requirements. It also requires Ligado to protect adjacent band incumbents by reporting its base station locations and technical operating parameters to potentially affected government and industry stakeholders prior to commencing operations, continuously monitoring the transmit power of its base station sites, and complying with procedures and actions for responding to credible reports of interference, including rapid shutdown of operations where warranted.

However, The decision “appears to ignore the well-documented views of the expert agencies charged with preserving the integrity of GPS, specifically on the critical issue of what constitutes harmful interference to users of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS),” said J. David Grossman, executive director of the GPS Innovation Alliance (GPSIA). He continued,

Headshot: J. David Grossman

J. David Grossman

“GPSIA has consistently advocated for adoption of the 1-dB Standard as the only reliable mechanism that provides the predictability and certainty to ensure the continuation of the GPS success story, with the support of the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation and numerous other federal agencies. The 1-dB Standard for radiofrequency-based services is critical for GNSS. The FCC’s press release refers to conditions placed on Ligado’s application to prevent harmful interference, and GPSIA and its members intend to carefully review the details of today’s order while continuing to vigorously advocate for promoting, protecting and enhancing GPS.”

Ligado Networks President and CEO Doug Smith issued this statement in reaction to the approval.

“Ligado thanks the Commissioners for moving promptly to approve the order regarding our applications. We greatly appreciate their unanimous support as well as the expert engineering analysis determining that a terrestrial network can be deployed in the L-band to advance our country’s economic and security interests while fully protecting GPS. Our spectrum can be very instrumental in the transition to 5G, and we look forward to utilizing satellite and terrestrial services to deploy customized private networks and deliver innovative, next-generation IoT solutions for the industrial sector.”

Positive reactions to the decision

On April 20, the FCC released a compilation of responses to the decision, all of them in support.

Attorney General Bill Barr: “I applaud FCC Chairman Pai’s proposal to make available L-band spectrum, to be used together with C-band spectrum, for deployment of advanced wireless services, including 5G. As I said in my speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, swift FCC action on spectrum is imperative to allow for the deployment of 5G. This is essential if we are to keep our economic and technological leadership and avoid forfeiting it to Communist China.” (Statement, 4/16/2020)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “I commend Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Pai’s draft order that would release the L-Band spectrum. Quick action on this order, in conjunction with the allocation of a portion of the C-Band for 5G, is vital to our national security and will help ensure that the United States is the global leader in advanced technologies such as AI, the Internet of Things, edge computing, and the next generation of telemedicine. Accelerating the deployment of 5G is essential to our country’s growth, and global economic security.” (Statement, 4/16/2020)

Sen. Ron Johnson (WI): “In a time when connectivity is and will continue to be more important than ever, it’s great to see @AjitPaiFCC move forward with freeing up critical spectrum resources for #5G.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Sen. Mark Warner (VA): “As the U.S. works to lead the world in 5G innovation and promote wider high-speed internet coverage, it’s all the more important to put our valuable mid-band spectrum to use. I urge the @FCC to follow the Chairman’s lead and approve Virginia-based @LigadoInsights’s application.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Rep. Billy Long (MO): “I applaud @AjitPaiFCC and the @FCC for taking action to unlock vital L-band spectrum that has been held hostage by bureaucratic slow-walking for far too long. Jobs and 5G is a win-win for the country.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Rep. Doris Matsui (CA): “I called on the @FCC to move forward with new, innovative uses of L-band spectrum to advance 5G. Glad to see the Commission take action on this front today to encourage efficient use of our spectrum.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Former Rep. Bob Barr (GA): “Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s decision to circulate a draft FCC Order would at long last move forward the process of opening up a segment of mid-band satellite spectrum for commercial use in 5G technology deserves praise. … If adopted by the five-member Commission headed by Pai, the draft Order would tangibly signal to the country and the world that the United States is committed to seize the leadership in deployment of 5G technology, a role China openly covets.” (Statement, 4/16/2020)

American Action Forum: “More good news from the FCC! 5G is incredibly important and this is yet another example of actions that will enable innovation in 5G and support the growing number of connected devices.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

American Enterprise Institute Visiting Scholar Mark Jamison:  “@FCC approval of Ligado petition should accelerate 5G, bring diversity to marketplace, and increase efficient spectrum use. … Good leadership and bipartisan effort!”  (Tweet, 4/20/20)

American Enterprise Institute Visiting Scholar Roslyn Layton: “Kudos @AjitPaiFCC for unlocking more vital mid-band spectrum for #5G. Record of 10 years shows @LigadoNetworks took many steps with agencies and firms to address potential issues with GPS. We must move quickly on 5G!” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Citizens Against Government Waste: “The FCC has the engineering expertise to determine the best use of this spectrum and whether alternative uses would cause undue interference. The adoption of the Chairman’s draft order will promote 5G and IoT development, while providing the necessary safeguards for services using adjacent bands, including GPS positioning. … The L-band would not be used at all for the foreseeable future unless the FCC takes action. Freeing up the spectrum requested by Ligado will not only expand the use of 5G, it will also help to prevent other countries, particularly China, from getting ahead of the U.S. in 5G deployment.” (Blog, 4/17/2020)

Competitive Carriers Association: “[We] commend Chairman Pai for circulating a draft order to approve Ligado’s applications, which will make much-needed mid-band spectrum, specifically L-band spectrum, available for terrestrial use. This long-awaited, positive progress comes at a critical time for all Americans, particularly those in rural areas, who are relying on mobile connections and services more than ever before. Mid-band spectrum provides real opportunities for deploying next-generation technologies, and competitive carriers are eager to access this valuable resource to expand and enhance their networks.” (Statement, 4/16/20)

Competitive Enterprise Institute: “Access to spectrum is crucial for our modern economy, connecting everything from radios, to cellphones, to satellites. But for too long, turf-wars between federal regulatory agencies have left spectrum bands largely unavailable for valuable commercial applications. Today’s FCC decision wrests spectrum away from bureaucratic waste and delivers it into the hands of people who will aide our economic recovery and resiliency in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.” (Statement, 4/16/2020)

CTIA—The Wireless Association: “We’re pleased to see that the FCC has managed to cut through the red tape to make a decision on Ligado. This multi-year process reveals the challenges at play in our nation’s spectrum policy and the need for stronger support for new commercial wireless services. We need to all learn lessons from this process and ensure that decisions on key spectrum bands like lower 3 GHz occur in a more expedited and collaborative manner.” (Statement, 4/16/2020)

FreedomWorks: “Freeing up broadband spectrum will make America a global technological leader and will lead to innovations and developments that will improve quality of life across the country. Chairman Pai and the FCC should be applauded for their work resolving these matters[.]” (Blog, 4/15/2020)

Free State Foundation: “Chairman @AjitPaiFCC has made a commendable decision to act on @LigadoNetworks’ proposal to put L-band spectrum into use for next-gen wireless services. This move takes seriously the @FCC’s responsibility and the urgent need for more commercial spectrum.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy Distinguished Fellow Gigi Sohn: “This decision was a long time coming, but it’s the right one. … Kudos to @AjitPaiFCC for having the fortitude to move this forward.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Information Technology & Innovation Foundation: “Great to see @FCC taking steps to finally approve @LigadoNetworks waiver for terrestrial use of their spectrum. This will be a boon to industrial IoT connectivity, bringing more productivity, safety, and resiliency for users of the network.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

International Center for Law & Economics: “Promoting deployment of 5G & next-gen IoT devices means finding new ways for incumbents to responsibly operate in ever-closer proximity. The @FCC’s Ligado order does that. Credit to @AjitPaiFCC for finding a way fwd that promotes innovation while limiting the risk of interference.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Lincoln Network: “Access to spectrum is an essential feature in any working 5G plan. Frankly, one key barrier in opening up this vital resource is government’s stronghold on ‘beachfront’ spectrum whether they own it or not. … This proceeding has been in regulatory limbo for several years due in large part to government stakeholders’ speculative interference claims regarding GPS-applications. … The FCC’s draft order in this proceeding provides enough protection for incumbents in adjacent bands, adds more competition into the 5G-IoT space, and allows consumers to have more access to broadband. Everybody wins.” (Blog, 4/16/2020)

Mercatus Center Senior Fellow Brent Skorup: “Too often new tech is stalled by FCC regulation and incumbents. Chairman Pai pledged to breathe new life into Sec. 7. It’s great to see Chairman Pai and the FCC act on that pledge, liberalize spectrum, and expedite the deployment of new wireless services.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

National Security Institute: “Big move by @FCC Chairman @AjitPaiFCC today to support US 5G availability. This is a key nat sec issue w/ threat posed by China + econ benefits of broad 5G deployment in US.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute: “Kudos to @AjitPaiFCC @FCC for again standing up to Fed agencies trying to hoard spectrum they are not using – or, in this case, which is licensed to @LigadoNetworks! A big plus for #5G wireless ecosystem if it’s built out.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

R Street Institute: “If you can change your business model to be more productive and profitable, without hurting anyone else, then regulations shouldn’t stand in your way. Well done, @FCC!” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Progressive Policy Institute: “We applaud the FCC’s ongoing efforts to accelerate the deployment of 5G. Repurposing this commercial spectrum for a mobile broadband network is another step in the right direction.” (Tweet, 4/16/2020)

Public Knowledge: “The Chairman’s proposed Order reveals how the FCC has worked to both protect incumbent GPS users while allowing for pro-competitive commercial licensing of spectrum. … Congress has entrusted the FCC to strike the proper balance between the needs of incumbents and the potential benefits to new entrants or new users, and here, the FCC gets it right. In approving Ligado’s license, the FCC has taken an important step forward in its role as the sole arbiter of spectrum disputes and, in this instance, has correctly sided on behalf of the public interest to help deliver the potential of 5G to more Americans.” (Statement, 4/16/2020)

Technology Policy Institute: “Allowing the Ligado spectrum to lie fallow would represent a waste of valuable resources that could provide substantial benefits for consumers in the form of new Internet of Things and other uses. … Failure to approve the Ligado license modifications would have the opposite effect, transferring a large block of spectrum from the commercial sector back to the government. The Commission’s action today will avoid that outcome.” (Statement, 4/16/2020)

Wireless Infrastructure Association: “WIA applauds Chairman Pai for circulating a draft order to approve Ligado’s plans to deploy a nationwide network that would primarily support 5G and IoT services. After years of diligence, study, and discussion, today’s action is further evidence that the FCC bases its decisions on science and engineering. Freeing up more spectrum, especially mid-band spectrum, is vital to 5G deployment. Ligado’s proposal offers an enormous opportunity for infrastructure investment, deployment, and connectivity for Americans across the country right when we need it most.” (Statement, 4/16/2020)

About the Author:


Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.

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