FCC's Pai Proposes Approving Ligado Terrestrial Broadband Net

In another effort to use midband spectrum for 5G, FCC chair Ajit Pai has proposed granting the application of Ligado Network's (née LightSquared) application to use "fallow" L-band spectrum for its hybrid satellite/mobile broadband network. 

Pai circulated a draft order approving, with conditions, Ligado's application to deploy a low-power terrestrial broadband network in the L-band that would support 5G and IoT Services. 

The company has been trying to launch a terrestrial wholesale wireless broadband service using spectrum initially licensed for satellite for a decade. Back then it was for a 4G network. 

"This draft order would both promote more efficient and effective use of our nation’s spectrum resources and ensure that adjacent band operations, including the Global Positioning System (GPS), are protected from harmful interference," the FCC said. 

The issue has been sensitive GPS receivers being interfered with by in-band LightSquared (now Legado) transmissions that prompted an outcry from GPS users, including many government agencies, and prompted the FCC (several FCCs ago) to put an indefinite hold on the proposal. 

"After many years of consideration, it is time for the FCC to make a decision and bring this proceeding to a close,” said Pai. “We have compiled an extensive record, which confirms that it is in the public interest to grant Ligado’s application while imposing stringent conditions to prevent harmful interference." Those include power levels 99% lower than Ligado proposed in a 2015 application and the commitment to provide a guard band using Legado's own licensed spectrum. Ligado must also protect adjacent-band incumbents by "reporting its base station locations and technical operating parameters to potentially affected government and industry stakeholders prior to commencing operations, continuously monitoring the transmit power of its base station sites, and complying with procedures and actions for responding to credible reports of interference, including rapid shutdown of operations where warranted." 

Pai said he appreciated the concerns by federal agencies, but based on the FCC's engineering and with the conditions, he said he was convinced the service could be approved without causing "harmful interference." 

"We commend chairman Pai for his leadership and his vision, and we look forward to engaging with the other Commissioners to drive this process forward," said Ligado president Doug Smith. "Since the very beginning of its long, comprehensive and collaborative analysis of the technical issues presented by Ligado’s application, the FCC’s dedicated staff has repeatedly shown its commitment to science-based, engineering-driven decision making, and chairman’s Pai’s circulation of the Order regarding our license modification applications is the most recent example of this. 

"The central importance of mid-band – especially our lower mid-band – to 5G is well-known. As Ericsson and Nokia technical studies on our proposed network deployment have shown, the superior propagation characteristics of our spectrum will improve mobile 5G coverage – both outdoor and indoor – and in doing so, accelerate the deployment of 5G networks. Ligado is committed to the twin goals of protecting GPS while delivering highly secure and ultra-reliable communications to accelerate next-generation technologies and the Industrial Internet of Things." 

Some federal agencies may have issues with the proposal, but attorney General Bill Barr was pleased and urged the other FCC commissioners to follow Pai's lead. 

“I applaud FCC Chairman Pai's proposal to make available L-band spectrum, to be used together with C-band spectrum, for deployment of advanced wireless services, including 5G," he said in an e-mailed statement. "As I said in my speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, swift FCC action on spectrum is imperative to allow for the deployment of 5G. This is essential if we are to keep our economic and technological leadership and avoid forfeiting it to Communist China. Freeing up L-band spectrum for use in tandem with the C-band, as the Chairman proposes, 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. I hope the full Commission moves forward quickly.” 

“I am pleased to see Chairman Pai circulate a draft order to finally allow for commercial deployments in the L Band," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). "Throughout the history of commercial mobile communications, the U.S. has been solutions-oriented, favoring evidence-based testing and technology innovation to promote efficient spectrum usage. As the U.S. works to lead the world in 5G innovation – and as we work to promote wider coverage here in the U.S – it’s all the more important to ensure valuable mid-band spectrum is put to use.

“Ligado, a Virginia company, has endured years of back-and-forth as the issue has been studied and re-studied. I encourage the Commission to approve this draft order expeditiously.”

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) called on the rest of the commissioners to reject Pai's proposal.

“New technology is vital to America’s economy, national security, and to our aerospace and defense industry," said the AIA. "However, the government has a responsibility to help ensure it is deployed in a way that does not jeopardize the work of our armed forces or the safety of the American people. Today’s announcement disregards the serious concerns raised by various government agencies about the harmful impacts to GPS. We urge the FCC to reject the Chairman’s proposal and adequately protect the GPS network that underpins our nation’s military operations and the safety of our airspace.” 

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.