FCC, Pentagon Go to War Over 5G Spectrum

The Defense Department has gone on the offensive against the FCC when it comes to protecting GPS spectrum, with the aid of some powerful members of Congress and the pilot who engineered the “Miracle on the Hudson,” and the president could even get into the issue.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has criticized the FCC’s Ligado decision. 

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has criticized the FCC’s Ligado decision. 

A unanimous Federal Communications Commission approved the application of Ligado, formerly LightSquared, for a terrestrial 5G broadband network using spectrum adjacent to GPS, just the latest in a series of FCC decisions meant to free up more spectrum for 5G. But DOD, with the backing of Armed Services Committee members in both houses of Congress, is clearly not giving up a campaign against Ligado and the FCC decision, and one key committee chair suggested the commander in chief could take the field.

Ligado’s attempt to launch some form of competitive broadband service dates back almost a decade, when it was going to be 4G and a satellite-based system with a terrestrial component. But it has morphed on its long journey, and the push for 5G and new broadband competition came along at an opportune time.

The DOD, like other government agencies — the FCC in the current case — tends to be protective of its spectrum, which has created an ongoing tension with the FCC as the regulator tries to find ways to free up or share swaths currently in government hands in its race to beat China and be first to 5G.

RELATED: House Armed Services Committee Members Take Aim at FCC's Ligado Decision

In fact, citing that Trump mandate, Republican FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly wrote to the president last month, suggesting DOD had become the Department of Spectrum Defense, saying it was “exceptionally reluctant to part with one single megahertz. Simply put, every excuse, delay tactic and political chit is used to prevent the repurposing of any spectrum.”

O’Rielly included praise for both Trump and his efforts to boost the military, but said freeing up 5G did not threaten that legacy or the national defense. But while the president has made winning the race to 5G a priority, he is also historically deferential to the military.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai could be forgiven for thinking he had administration backing, since both Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said publicly they supported the Ligado petition, as had a pair of powerful Democrats, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Rep. Doris Matsui of California.

In the past, when the FCC and DOD have butted heads over spectrum, some compromise has been reached. But there was no compromise with DOD on the Ligado proposal, which was clear from the language of the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing on the issue.

Rarely is such language by a Republican aimed at a Republican FCC chair.

At the hearing, Armed Services Committee chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said of the FCC: “They waited until the whole world was distracted by the COVID-19 virus, and when everyone was looking the other way, and unannounced to the public, in total secrecy on a weekend, passed the most controversial licensing [proposal] in the history of the FCC.”

Inhofe said every government agency as well as the airlines, farmers and truckers opposed the item “and the FCC knew it,” which was why there was a rushed vote to the benefit of one company and its investors.

The FCC could have waited and voted during its teleconference meeting, but it has also voted on many items before those meetings, including the unanimous Ligado item.

“A few powerful people made a hasty decision over the weekend, in the middle of the national crisis, against the judgment of every other agency involved and without clueing the president in on any of this,” Inhofe said. “I’ve had conversations with him on this and I can assure you that’s the case.”

The pushback has grown since the FCC voted to approve the Ligado application. Following the Senate hearing, Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed his disabled plane on the Hudson river in January 2009, cited Multichannel News’s coverage of the hearing in a Twitter post stating his opposition to the FCC decision.

“GPS is critically important to our national security and our economy,” Sullenberger said in the May 7 tweet. “Yet the [FCC] has approved a private company’s use of frequencies that will interfere with GPS. This wrongheaded and dangerous decision must be reversed.”

RELATED: FCC: Senate Ligado-Related Attacks Are 'Baseless Fearmongering'

Following that hearing, almost two dozen members of the House Armed Services Committee from both sides of the aisle wrote Pai and the other commissioners to express their “deep concern.”

They said that while Ligado has argued that DOD assessments of harmful interference from its broadband network are not based on any testing data, they want to make sure that commissioners have independently confirmed that fact, preferably via a classified briefing.

The House members said they are pushing DOD to share as much spectrum for 5G as possible, but not if it is a national security threat.

Meanwhile, the FCC continues to maintain that at the power levels it has approved for Ligado, far lower than it asked for, GPS will be protected.

‘Fearmongering’ Charges

A spokesperson for the chairman labeled the Senate Armed Services hearing criticisms of the decision “fearmongering.” The suggestion — by Inhofe — that all the government agencies opposed the decision, for example, was “blatantly false,” given the support from Barr and Pompeo.

“Given all of the untrue statements being made at the hearing, it is difficult to know where to begin,” said a spokesman for Pai, who said the suggestion that DOD and others had been blindsided by a decision for which a draft was provided last fall was “preposterous.” 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.