Pentagon blasts FCC decision to approve Ligado spectrum plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Defense Department on Wednesday blasted a decision by the Federal Communications Commission last month to allow Ligado Networks [MOSAV.UL] to deploy a low-power nationwide mobile broadband network, saying it could pose severe risks to global positioning systems crucial to military operations.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Pentagon leaders argued the decision may result in businesses turning to Russian- or Chinese-based space navigation systems to replace GPS.

“There are too many unknowns and the risks are too great to allow the proposed Ligado system to proceed in light of the operational impact to GPS,” said Dana Deasy, the Defense Department’s chief information officer.

The spectrum block Ligado wants to tap is in the L-Band, which is also home to spectrum used by GPS systems, which are used by the military, businesses and consumers. Ligado notes there would be an unused band between the GPS and mobile network spectrum to prevent interference, but the military is not satisfied.

Republican Senator James Inhofe, who chairs the panel, and the top Democrat, Senator Jack Reed, both criticized the FCC decision.

“I do not think it is a good idea to place at risk the GPS signals that enable our national and economic security for the benefit of one company and its investors,” Inhofe said. “This is about much more than risking our military readiness and capabilities. Interfering with GPS will hurt the entire American economy.”

An FCC spokesman said prior testing cited by the Defense Department was at “dramatically higher power levels than the FCC approved” and said the agency made “a unanimous, bipartisan decision based on sound engineering principles. We stand by that decision 100% and will not be dissuaded by baseless fearmongering.”

The 5-0 vote on April 20 by the FCC came despite objections from many other federal agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, and major U.S. airlines.

The FCC has defended its decision, saying it included stringent conditions aimed at ensuring GPS systems would not experience harmful interference and has won backing from U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Ligado, the wireless satellite venture formerly known as LightSquared Inc that emerged from bankruptcy in 2015, has been working for years to deploy a network using spectrum to help telecom companies deploy next-generation 5G wireless networks. Ligado says the spectrum is crucial for wide-scale 5G deployment because it can be used for in-building penetration and greater coverage at lower costs.

Ligado said Wednesday it has gone to great lengths to prevent interference and will provide six months notice before deploying the system and “have a 24/7 monitoring capability, a hotline, a stop buzzer or kill switch” and will “repair or replace at Ligado’s cost any government device shown to be susceptible to harmful interference.”

Michael Griffin, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, said in his Senate testimony that if Ligado moves forward, it would represent “a self-inflicted wound on GPS.”

“While we set out to redesign and refresh hundreds of millions of GPS receivers in our installed national security and industrial base, others, especially Russia and China, will be quick to take advantage of our mistake by offering replacement systems that are not vulnerable to Ligado’s interference,” Griffin said. “A weakened GPS system offers our adversaries the opportunity to replace the United States as the world standard for satellite navigation.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that “the FCC’s decision will disrupt the daily lives and commerce of millions of Americans and inject unacceptable risk into systems that are critical for emergency response, aviation and missile defense.”

Ligado says that argument “would mean that the vast number of the world’s most expensive military defense systems that rely on GPS are vulnerable to the power equivalent of a 10-watt light bulb.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler