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Senators pressure FCC to reconsider approval of Ligado 5G

A bipartisan group of 32 lawmakers sends a letter citing Pentagon concerns about GPS interference.

About a third of US senators sign a letter pushing the FCC to reconsider its decision over upstart Ligado's 5G network. 
CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Political pressure is mounting for the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider its decision last month to allow upstart Ligado Networks to repurpose satellite spectrum to build a 5G network of smart, industrial devices on the ground. On Friday, a bipartisan group of 32 US senators sent a letter to the agency urging it to reverse its decision, citing claims by the Pentagon that the service would interfere with GPS navigation. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, and ranking Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island are leading the effort. The letter also included signatures from six senators that sit on both the Armed Services Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees the FCC. These six senators include Sens. Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska.; Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, and Rick Scott, a Republican from Florida, along with Democrats Gary Peters of Michigan; Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Krysten Sinema of Arizona.

In the letter, the senators asked the FCC to "immediately stay and reconsider their order" and to "more fully consider the technical concerns raised by numerous federal agencies and private sector stakeholders."

The letter also criticized the FCC for "the hurried nature of the circulation and consideration of the order itself -- during a national crisis, no less."

The FCC said it "stands by" its bipartisan and unanimous decision made on April 20 to permit Ligado to use its spectrum for 5G. The agency says its technical experts have studied the interference issues for nearly two decades and have concluded that the safeguards spelled out in the commission's approval last month, including power limits on Ligado's radios, should mitigate any dangerous interference.

The letter comes after Defense Department officials testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 6 that interference from 5G radios that Ligado plans to deploy on the ground would affect accuracy of weapons systems as well as disrupt 911 first responder calls, which rely on GPS location information.

In response to Friday's letter, the FCC again called claims that it made a hasty decision in approving Ligado's request to repurpose its spectrum "preposterous." And it defended its "rigorous" process. 

"There were multiple rounds of public comment on the Ligado application, which has been pending for many years," a spokesman for the agency said in a statement. He added that federal agencies, including the Defense Department, were provided with the FCC's draft decision in October last year.  

Ligado Networks, which in a previous incarnation was known as LightSquared, emerged from bankruptcy in 2015 with a plan to use its so-called L-band spectrum to meld satellite communications with an on-the-ground 5G network to build a smart device network geared for industries like manufacturing, agriculture, commercial transportation and utilities.  Ligado says the midband spectrum it plans to use for the service sits in the sweet spot for 5G because it offers the right mix of high-capacity and longer-range reach. 

But the problems with this sliver spectrum have also been well-documented. Since the airwaves Ligado wants to use sit right next to spectrum used for GPS navigation, there can be interference issues at certain power levels. In order to mitigate these interference issues, Ligado has agreed to reduce the power output of its transmitters by 99%. 

But Pentagon officials argue that this fix is not good enough. In their letter, the senators reiterated the Defense Department's concerns.

"We are concerned that the [FCC] Order does not adequately protect adjacent band operations -- including those related to the Global Positioning System (GPS) and satellite communications -- from harmful interference that would impact countless commercial and military activities," the letter states.

Ligado didn't immediately comment on Friday's letter, but in an earlier interview with CNET, the company's CEO Doug Smith stated that he is confident the FCC made the right decision. He believes that the Defense Department has been misleading lawmakers about the possibility of harmful interference, and he said he's confident that once senators dig into the technical specifics they will trust the FCC's decision. 

"This process has taken 17 years," Smith said. "I am completely confident that the unanimous decision that the FCC made, based on a tremendous amount of engineering data, is correct."

Other top officials in the US government agree. Ligado's plan also has the backing of US Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as Democrats such as Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Rep. Doris Matsui of California.

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