The Pentagon's fight to kill Ligado's 5G network

The Defense Department says the FCC's approval of Ligado's petition to use satellite spectrum for 5G will destroy GPS.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
8 min read
Ligado Networks

Even as major players like Verizon and AT&T are rushing to roll out 5G, a little-known company is looking to build its own alternative network using the wireless technology with the intent to connect the various devices in our lives. With so much hype around 5G, you'd expect a red carpet for this initiative. But the company, Ligado Networks, has run into some high-profile opposition: the US Defense Department. 

It's the latest twist in a long-running saga over the idea of an alternative cellular network. Ligado, a wireless satellite venture known previously as LightSquared, has been working for nearly two decades to deploy its wireless spectrum, originally earmarked for satellite services, to help telecom companies deliver next-generation wireless offerings.

The Pentagon says the system Ligado proposes would mess with the GPS signals that are vital to military operations.

The key to Ligado's plan is its swath of so-called midband wireless spectrum. Midband spectrum is considered important for 5G deployments because it offers an attractive mix of both geographic coverage and high speeds, making it a critical component of the US' strategy to win the 5G race. T-Mobile jumped through two years of hoops to buy Sprint and its stash of midband spectrum. 

An alternative network would give businesses another option outside the big three of Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile when connecting their devices. Another new entrant, Dish Networks, is in the middle of building its own brand-new 5G network. The next-generation technology is poised to change our lives with a significant boost in speed, coverage and responsiveness. Not only will 5G lead to better speeds on our phones , but it'll also eventually power technologies like self-driving cars and more precise telemedicine. 

Ligado plans 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.   

That sounds promising, but Ligado's plan hasn't been without controversy. That's because the licenses Ligado owns reside next to spectrum used for GPS navigation. In order to lessen the chances of interference, the Federal Communications Commission put hefty restrictions on Ligado's use of the spectrum, limiting its power output by more than 99% and placing buffer zones around it. 

While the restrictions were enough to satisfy much of the commercial GPS industry, they haven't satisfied everyone -- most notably the Department of Defense, which relies on GPS to coordinate tactical operations, launch spacecraft, track threats and facilitate air and sea travel.

Now the Pentagon is pushing back against the FCC's decision last month to let Ligado repurpose satellite spectrum licenses it already owns to build a new 5G network. Department of Defense officials went to Capitol Hill last week to voice their concerns that the new terrestrial network would interfere with military and civilian GPS systems, jeopardizing national security and public safety. 

"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," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on May 5.

The complaint: GPS interference

On April 20, the FCC voted unanimously to approve Ligado's petition to deploy a low-power nationwide 5G network. Technical experts at the FCC, who've examined the issues for years, say the safeguards spelled out in the commission's approval, including power limits on Ligado's radios, should mitigate any dangerous interference.

"After many years of consideration, it is time for the FCC to make a decision and bring this proceeding to a close," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement in April. "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."

Two weeks later, the Defense Department made its move. Dana Deasy, the agency's CIO, along with Gen. John Raymond, chief of space operations, and Michael Griffin, head of research and engineering, 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.

Watch this: 5G means more than just fast downloads to your phone

The Defense Department argues that the use of spectrum, even at lower power, right next to functioning GPS would still disrupt navigation signals, which could wreak havoc on technology necessary for US national security. 

The FCC said it hoped the order would promote more efficient and more effective use of spectrum. 

For its part, Ligado says it's planning to invest $800 million in infrastructure to help generate more than 8,000 jobs across urban and rural districts in all 50 states. The company says its spectrum can be used to help accelerate 5G deployment in the US. 

"The spectrum we're talking about putting to use, this midband spectrum, is really the sweet spot in terms of capacity and coverage when it comes to 5G," Doug Smith, CEO of Ligado, said in an interview. "So from that standpoint, we really feel like we can play a very significant role in our nation's transition to 5G."

Being "first" in 5G is a major policy objective for the US right now, with support from the Trump administration, as well as bipartisan support within the FCC and in Congress. Policy experts believe the outcome of the 5G race is likely to determine whether the US will continue to maintain its technological edge and shape geopolitics for the next couple of decades or will cede that control to countries like China, which sees technological dominance as a way to become a world superpower. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the FCC's move to approve Ligado's use of spectrum for 5G "vital to our national security" as it "will help ensure that the United States is the global leader in advanced technologies such as AI, the Internet of Things, edge computing, and the next generation of telemedicine."

The history

The recent controversy is just the latest chapter in a saga that's spanned more than a decade. Ligado, which was known previously as LightSquared, has been trying since 2010 to win federal approval to use its satellite licenses to build a broadband service. 

For a brief time, LightSquared made waves by hiring telecom veterans such as Sanjiv Ahuja, the CEO of French mobile player Orange, and regularly making the rounds at industry conferences. But the company filed for bankruptcy in 2012 after it failed to gain approval from the FCC to move forward with its plan to build a nationwide 4G LTE network with the spectrum.

The FCC, which had granted the company a provisional license, pulled the license after protests from the GPS industry complaining of interference issues. The company reorganized and came out of bankruptcy in 2015 with a new name and a new plan, which took into account the interference concerns.  

"We completely revamped the applications that were filed for LightSquared," Smith said in an interview. "As an engineer of 30 years, I can tell you that we have solved the GPS interference issues."

But the Defense Department says testing from the Department of Transportation and the Air Force have found that signals even at the lower levels of power suggested by Ligado could still cause interference. In his testimony last week, Griffin, who heads engineering and research at the Defense Department, likened the spectrum interference to sound. He said that the GPS satellites send signals that are very quiet, like the ruffling of leaves. Meanwhile, Ligado's signal would be the equivalent of 100 jets taking off, essentially drowning out the signals from satellites.

Deasy added that the military can't just accept the FCC's assurances that it would require Ligado not to interfere with existing services. 

"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," Deasy said in his testimony. 

But the FCC and Ligado have argued that the metrics used in the Department of Transportation study don't follow the technical guidelines the FCC has been using for decades to determine interference that can have truly harmful effects. As for the study conducted by the US Air Force, the Defense Department hasn't produced technical details.

Political battle

As with many things in Washington, the issue has turned political. But what makes this controversy noteworthy is that the sides aren't formed along party lines. In fact, the Defense Department seems to have the backing of both Republicans and Democrats on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. 

Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who chairs the committee, accused "a few powerful people" at the Republican-led FCC of orchestrating a vote and making a "hasty decision over the weekend" during the COVID-19 pandemic in the hopes of approving Ligado's plan "in total secrecy" so no one would notice.  

A spokesman for the FCC called the notion that the Department of Defense didn't have any warning that the FCC was considering Ligado's proposal "preposterous."

"The Department of Defense and every executive branch agency that is part of the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee was given our draft decision last autumn," he said.

Ranking member Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, agreed with Inhofe in his opening remarks that he does "not believe that the FCC's decision to grant this license is in the best interests of our national security or our nation."

Neither the FCC nor Ligado were asked to testify at the Senate hearing, a fact that Ligado Chairman Ivan Seidenberg, who previously ran Verizon, and Smith called "unfortunate" in a statement they released the day the hearing was held. 

Smith went on to say in an interview that the Defense Department has not only mischaracterized the FCC's "rigorous" and "thorough" process, but that some of its statements about the testing process and the notice that was given to the agency are simply false.

"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."

This is also the sentiment shared by Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr, as well as Democrats such as Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Rep. Doris Matsui of California, who all support the FCC and the approval of Ligado's plan. 

"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," Warner said in a statement on April 16, days before the FCC indicated it would approve Ligado's request. "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."

Meanwhile, Deasy said he's working with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which coordinates spectrum use for the government, on an appeal of the FCC's decision. But it would be unusual for the FCC to reverse its decision.

Still, it's clear that the fight is far from over. Congress could also take action. 

The FCC says it stands by its decision. A spokesman for the agency said that nothing presented during the hearing changes the basic fact that the tests don't show harmful interference, despite what the Defense Department argues. He said the measurements claimed in the testimony were based on power levels that were far greater than what the FCC had approved. 

"The bottom line here is that the FCC made a unanimous, bipartisan decision based on sound engineering principles," he said.  "We stand by that decision 100% and will not be dissuaded by baseless fearmongering."