DoD Pleads Case to Senate for Reversing FCC’s Ligado Spectrum Decision

The Pentagon (Photo: Shutterstock)

Defense Department (DoD) officials on May 6 pleaded their case to the Senate Armed Services Committee for a reversal of the Federal Communications Commission’s recent decision to grant a spectrum license to Virginia-based Ligado to operate in a spectrum band that military officials claim will interfere with Global Positioning System (GPS) networks vital to DoD operations.

The FCC’s decision last month – which has since received criticism from military officials – also came under fire from some members of the Senate Committee at this week’s hearing, while other senators were skeptical.

It was unclear at the conclusion of the hearing what steps might be taken to reverse the FCC’s ruling, but senators and witnesses said action may be possible through both administrative and legislative routes.

Administrative Petition Possible

DoD CIO Dana Deasy, who testified at the hearing, recommended a process where the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) can file a petition with the FCC to reverse its decision.

“I believe we need to go through that process,” said Deasy, who explained that the deadline for such a petition is “somewhere towards the end of May.”

Senators Have Mixed Views

Committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., called the Ligado decision “the most controversial licensing bill, I think, in the history of the FCC.” At issue is the level of interference Ligado’s equipment will cause to military operations.

Gen. John Raymond, who heads U.S. Space Command, said GPS relies on the operations of 31 satellites operating 12,000 miles above the ground, and is used by 4.5 billion people across the world.  However, Raymond said the GPS system would become “irrelevant” if the satellite signals can’t be interpreted on the ground – as he said would be the case if Ligado equipment on the ground leads to signal interference.

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Michael Griffin, DoD’s Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and a former NASA administrator, likened reception of the GPS signals received on the ground to hearing “the rustle of leaves.” By contrast, he said, interference from Ligado equipment was like “the noise of 100 jets” at takeoff.

 

“The burden is on the Department of Defense,” Deasy said, to figure out what equipment will be affected by the Ligado equipment. The committee’s ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., agreed. He said the FCC should “stay the action” and periodically review it until new technologies – which would not be affected by the Ligado equipment – are installed in DoD equipment.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., was unconvinced by the Defense Department’s arguments. “You haven’t persuaded me,” he said. “We’ve only heard one side of the case,” said Kaine, noting the FCC reached a unanimous decision in the Ligado matter.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., agreed. “I wish we had someone from [the FCC] here,” she said.  “I don’t think the Department of Defense needs more spectrum,” said Blackburn, adding there must be reconsideration of how the department works with commercial industry.

Deasy, who noted the department’s recent work with the National Spectrum Consortium in spectrum sharing, said he was “completely caught off guard” by the Ligado decision.

“It’s quizzical,” said Admiral Thad Allen, former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, of the FCC’s 74-page decision. “You don’t write that overnight.”

Allen called the situation a “breakdown in communication at a regulatory agency,” and said the relationship between the FCC and NTIA is a “process that needs to be looked at.”

Legislative Options

Suggesting the possibility of crafting an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act to address the Ligado ruling,  Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked, “What do you want us to do?”

“It would appear to be a good topic for the committee of original jurisdiction,” Allen said.

“If you want to hold a hearing on this,” said Inhofe, turning to Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., at the conclusion of the nearly three-hour hearing, “it would certainly be in your purview.”

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