Senate Commerce Hosts Rousing Ligado Debate

The debate over allowing Ligado to use satellite spectrum for a planned terrestrial broadband network rages on. 

In this case, the field of verbal battle was FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly's confirmation hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday (June 16). 

Michael O'Rielly

Michael O'Rielly

The FCC has already unanimously granted the Ligado proposal (formerly LightSquared), so long as it meets various conditions, but that hasn't stopped critics on the Hill and in the Trump Administration from slamming the decision.  

Related: Ligado Tells FCC NTIA's Petition Fails on All Counts

The issue is potential interference with nearby GPS spectrum used for everything from navigation and timing to surveying and military guidance systems.

The hearing was tailor made for a Ligado debate given that other nominees being vetted at the hearing included Joel Szabat for Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy, U.S. Department of Transportation and Michael Walsh, Jr. as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

DOT and the National Telecommunications & Information Admininstration, an arm of Commerce and President Trump's chief communications policy advisor, both opposed the Ligado proposal and NTIA has petitioned the FCC to stay and reconsider the decision. 

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the committee stirred up the debate, trying to get one of the three to talk about what the real world implications of GPS interference were before finally getting an example--from Szabat--of a surveyor siting a road or pipeline in the wrong place due to bad data. 

Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

Wicker said he wanted to hear from both sides sitting at the same table. He was clearly trying to figure out whether if there were an interference issue, how soon that would be discovered and what the implications were for something as critical as GPS. 

O'Rielly defended the decision. He said the FCC's engineers had vetted it thoroughly and with the safeguards the FCC put in place at the outset, the middle and the back end, including a kill switch for the Ligado service if it did interfere, he was confident Ligado would not cause harmful interference to GPS. 

Related: FCC Faces Slew of Ligado-Slamming Petitions

He said the FCC had to balance all concerns. "I think what the commission did was put forward a license modification that is well defeneded by the record presented of a 17-year legal battle." He said he believes the item presents sufficient protections "on the front end, the middle and the end" to address the GPS interference concerns that had been raised. "I don't believe it will lead to harmful interference," he said. 

Walsh had plenty to say. He said NTIA "had long expressed the widely held view across the executive branch that Ligado's proposed terrestrial operations in historically satellite spectrum bands pose an unacceptable risk to the critical GPS service." He said there would definitely be harmful interference. 

NTIA nominee Michael Walsh

NTIA nominee Michael Walsh

Wicker asked him for examples of what such interference would mean to consumers, and seemed a bit crestfallen when Walsh said only "interference," then when pressed said he would provide a "detailed, technical" response for the record. 

"Oh, dear," sighed Wicker, though he conceded he had kind of sprung the Ligado "back and forth" on them. He later asked Walsh about what the implications for military might be--Walsh had said there were some, but averred that a public forum was not the place to go into details. 

Related: FCC Proposes Approving Ligado Application

O'Rielly said he was not sure he was right to say it was NTIA's long-held position that it was uniformly opposed. He said he had had previous conversations with multiple people saying NTIA had had a different viewpoint before "the dismissal of an administrator." That was a reference to the exit of former NTIA head David Redl. 

DOT nominee Joel Szabat

DOT nominee Joel Szabat

Szabat said from DOT's testing--which the FCC did not put much store by--there was definitely harmful interference to at least three categories--1) surveying, 2) anything space-based (POTUS is high on his new Space Force so that could be a flashpoint); and 3) timing (the precise timing of loch and dam openings or bank vaults, for example). He said those are the most sensitive and would be the most interfered with most often.  

He also said there could be interference, perhaps harmful, to general navigation, GPS in cars and general aviation. 

He did concede that Ligado has protected cellular service and commercial aviation would not receive harmful interference.

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

Szabat said the FCC's proposed guard band would help against interference, but not enough. 

Wicker wrapped it up by asking whether there was a middle ground where people of good will could land. O'Rielly said he hoped so; Walsh said he was always willing to try, but did not seem hopeful for the prospect. Szabat said was an optimist" but feared that physics stood between those people of good will. "I do not see a way in which anything approaching the Ligado proposal can succeed without interference to GPS." 

He said either the FCC was going to get more broadband at the expense of GPS, or GPS at the expense of a fourth broadband system. 

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.