Separating Fact from Fiction on the FCC’s Approach to Spectrum

We Shouldn’t Let Territorial Federal Agencies Override a Pro-Innovation Decision by the FCC


Senator Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., gave a speech on the Senate floor yesterday attacking the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) unanimously approved Order granting Ligado’s application to modify its license. Sen. Inhofe argues:

I think by now it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I oppose
this decision by the Federal Communications Commission to approve an
application by Ligado Networks. Ligado’s plan would use Federal
spectrum in a way that will interfere with GPS and satellite
communications, and despite near-unanimous objection from the rest of
the Federal Government, the Federal Communications Commission has just said OK.

Sen. Inhofe also notes that various agency officials (primarily DoD, which has a reputation for sitting on underutilized spectrum) who have raised concerns or objections to the FCC’s decision.

So what’s this all about? Ligado’s modification allows the company to deploy a low-power terrestrial network for 5G and IoT by leveraging its licensed frequencies within L-Band, not government-owned spectrum as the Senator states. However, Sen. Inhofe holds a much starker view on the FCC’s action. Unfortunately, in his speech, the Senator makes many assertions that are unsubstantiated, incomplete, or get key facts about the issue wrong.

My hope for this blog is to separate fact from fiction so that we can have a more meaningful discussion on opening up either underutilized or unused spectrum on this matter and future ones. In that spirit, my aim is to address the Senator’s main points within his speech.

We start with the Senator’s assertion that “the FCC made a decision over the weekend completely disregarding unanimous objections.” The fact is that the FCC has been met with broad bipartisan support from government officials (including FCC democratic leadership), industry, and civil society groups. What’s more is this proceeding stretches out at least a decade. But, although Ligado first filed its application in 2010, this proceeding actually commenced closer to 2003. The FCC’s Order is the culmination of an extensive record that articulates every stakeholder’s concern (including the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s)). Ligado also modified its application several times to address these concerns. This Order actually builds off these decade-long negotiations and clearly incorporated all of these concerns Senator expressed in his speech. This is evident from the fact that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the DoD, the Department of Transportation (DoT), and the Federal Aviation Administration submitted no complaints to the FCC’s inquiry regarding Ligado’s application circa 2017. Thus, the FCC has followed every conceivable government procedure for matters like these to the letter and any assertion to the contrary is devoid of facts.

When commenting on the effects the FCC’s Order has on Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Sen. Inhofe disregarded that fact that Ligado already has coexistence agreements with GPS manufacturers (i.e., Garmin, John Deere, Trimble, NovAtel, Hexagon, Leica and Topcon) that represent the lion’s share of the GPS market and supply devices that provide every GPS function mentioned in this letter. This provides these companies with more legal protection on top of the FCC’s restrictions on Ligado. Additionally, the FCC’s Order notes that government (including DoD) contracts with some of these suppliers. Thus, these concerns are sufficiently addressed by the FCC’s Ligado Order and other legal mechanisms. Also, DoD suppliers of GPS equipment have made spectrum-use agreements with Ligado, and have been on record that GPS devices providing the services described here can coexist with Ligado’s operations and potentially enhance various GPS-enabled operations protections from harmful disruptions (e.g., spoofing or jamming).

The Senator also claimed that nine federal agency experts “unanimously concluded that Ligado’s proposal, even with updates, would interfere with GPS and satellite communications.” However, it is important to remember that the FCC is the expert agency here and the Senator’s statement is contradicted not just by the FCC’s assessment of harmful interference, but also the testing data in the public record. The FCC’s Order reviewed three tests that examined potential interference concerns relating to Ligado’s proposed terrestrial operations and GPS (i.e., The Roberson and Associates Reports (RAA Reports), the National Advanced Spectrum and Communications Test Network Report (NASCTN Report), the DoT Adjacent Band Compatibility Assessment Final Report (DoT ABC Report)). Moreover, the DoD had requested Ligado to coordinate testing with NASCTN, a federal lab administered by the Pentagon, the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology and the NTIA to provide “accurate, reliable, rigorously scientific, and unbiased measurements and analyses” in technical spectrum matters. The NASCTN then conducted thousands of hours of comprehensive testing which showed GPS devices can coexist with the parameters of the network Ligado proposed in 2015 without posing a risk to national security. It is unclear at best how the “experts” the Senator references when the FCC’s Order passes under every traditional and accepted test for interference.

As I have stated before, if we have learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the importance of a united front from government. To be competitive in the race to 5G, the U.S. must rely on and support its expert agency – the FCC. If other agencies continue to fight the FCC on spectrum in this way, the U.S. will be forced to fall behind.

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