FCC chairman wants to greenlight Ligado's U.S.-wide 5G network

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) circulated on Thursday a draft order asking FCC members to approve Ligado Networks’ low-power nationwide 5G network despite objections from the Defense Department and major U.S. airlines.

FILE PHOTO: Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, speaks at the WSJTECH Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, U.S., October 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Ligado’s plan to use so-called L-Band spectrum, for which it holds some licenses, has come under criticism from some federal agencies and powerful lawmakers. The L-Band is also used for Global Positioning System (GPS) and other navigation systems because the signals can penetrate cloud cover. The Pentagon also uses the band for military purposes.

On Wednesday, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe, and the panel’s top Democrat, Jack Reed, asked U.S. President Donald Trump to bar Ligado from moving forward, citing interference with GPS reception.

“Ligado’s planned usage will likely harm military capabilities, particularly for the U.S. Space Force, and have major impact on the national economy,” Inhofe, Reed and Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a letter to Trump.

However, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that, based on an extensive technical review by FCC staff, he was “convinced” that conditions in his draft order would permit Ligado to proceed “without causing harmful interference.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr both endorsed Pai’s plan. Barr said on Thursday it “should greatly reduce the cost and time it will take to deploy 5G throughout the country and would be a major step toward preserving our economic future.”

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A coalition of firms including Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, Lockheed Martin Corp, Iridium Communications Inc and FedEx Corp, said in a letter made public on Thursday the FCC’s nine-year review of Ligado’s various proposals should end without approval.

“The aviation industry increasingly relies on L-band satellite communications and location services to ensure safe, efficient, and reliable air travel,” the coalition wrote, citing “Ligado’s failure to adequately address the harmful

interference at the heart of its proposals.”

The FCC did not comment on the airlines’ criticism.

In an April 10 letter to Pai, the executive branch - including the Pentagon, NASA, departments of Commerce and Homeland Security - said the Defense Department “strongly opposed” Ligado’s proposal because it would “adversely affect the military potential of GPS.”

An Air Force memo warned that Ligado’s proposals to reduce interference were “impractical and un-executable” and would “place enormous burdens on agencies and other GPS users to monitor and report the interference.”

The memo added that Ligado’s plan would not protect the vast majority of GPS receivers which are used outside defined areas such as military installations.

The memo was also signed by other federal agencies including the Army, Navy, Federal Aviation Administration, Energy Department, Justice Department, Commerce Department, NASA and Homeland Security Department.

Ligado President and Chief Executive Doug Smith said in a statement the company was committed to “protecting GPS while delivering highly secure and ultra-reliable communications.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Richard Chang and Muralikumar Anantharaman