A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-11 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 12:13 p.m. EDT

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-11 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 12:13 p.m. EDT United Launch Alliance

The Pentagon's Spectrum Defeat May Presage a Loss of Other Key Frequencies

Rejecting appeals by Defense officials and their Congressional allies, the FCC approved a private company's use of spectrum near ones used by GPS.

The Pentagon’s fight with the Federal Communications Commission over satellite company Ligado’s spectrum use is basically over, keen observers say, heralding greater use of the finite resource to expand broadband access.

“It's rare for the Department of Defense to suffer a defeat like this,” a former senior Commerce Department official told Nextgov reacting to the FCC’s unanimous approval of Ligado’s application on April 20. “It could be an opening salvo to greater use than in the past. You could see a resurrection of the push to making broadband more available.”

There’s only so much of the electromagnetic spectrum to go around. Commerce’s National Telecommunications Information Administration is responsible for managing the government’s use of it and making recommendations to the FCC about which frequencies the commission might license commercial entities and the general public to use.    

The FCC approved the order against the NTIA’s recommendation. NTIA cited concerns from the DOD and a number of other departments and agencies, saying the section of spectrum Ligado wants access to is too close to that being used by the Global Positioning System and would hamper the host of critical functions that GPS enables.

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On Wednesday, leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees penned an op-ed asking the FCC to reverse its decision and for President Trump to intervene. 

“We encourage the FCC to withdraw its approval of Ligado’s application and take this opportunity to work with the NTIA and other federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Transportation, to find a solution that will both support commercial broadband expansion and protect national security assets,” the committees' bipartisan leadership wrote

“If they do not, and unless President Trump intervenes to stop this from moving forward, it will be up to Congress to clean up this mess,” they wrote.

But other key lawmakers and a broad range of stakeholders have praised FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s action. 

Last Thursday, following Pai’s circulation of a draft of the approval order, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, tweeted his support for Pai “freeing up” spectrum to advance fifth-generation networking.  

Johnson chairs the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The FCC highlighted his tweet in a press release noting praise for the order. The list of supporters included Rep. Doris Matsui, a California Democrat; Attorney General William Barr; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; as well as individuals from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and public interest advocates from the digital rights group Public Knowledge. 

Ligado and its supporters used powerful messaging in their campaign to secure the spectrum, invoking the increased dependence on wireless networks during the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to beat China in a race to establish 5G networking.

“The reallocation of spectrum from DoD is not mutually exclusive with national security and must be pursued for the betterment of the American people and to ensure the continued success of our military under your leadership,” FCC Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly wrote in an April 8 letter uniquely tailored to President Trump. “I believe that only with your personal and active engagement will DoD reduce its spectrum footprint in a timely manner to promote 5G services. I implore you to exercise your exemplary skills in responding to this critical need.”

The former senior Commerce official Nextgov spoke with said DOD’s argument citing GPS interference and harm to national security would be more credible if it wasn’t reminiscent of “the boy who cried wolf.” 

“Over many years, DOD has laid claim to parts of the spectrum and whenever an opportunity has come up they've said, ‘no wait, we're using that or we have plans to use that,” said the former official, who was privy to the NTIA’s activities.

DOD supporters’ alarm over the FCC’s decision was also somewhat foiled by comments from Air Force officials who noted they would be taking “technical” measures to mitigate any harm Ligado’s use of spectrum might cause GPS. 

DHS also seemed resigned to the FCC’s decision and acknowledged ways to mitigate associated risks.

“If the FCC moves forward with its proposed action on Ligado, we will work with our partners to ensure procedures are in place to identify interference with GPS and rapidly implement mitigation measures while supporting the domestic deployment of 5G,” a statement the department issued Tuesday reads.

Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told Nextgov the DOD’s fears shouldn’t be surprising coming from such a risk-averse entity. 

Brake noted ways the DOD is working to overcome its fears but stridently disagrees with the Armed Services lawmakers who said the FCC’s Ligado decision “will set a disastrous precedent while impeding ongoing work on spectrum sharing.”

Brake said the Ligado story is “epic” and is wary of the military’s use of “sharing” in trying to change it. 

"I'm always very cautious when DOD talks about sharing as if it's like this magic wand,” he said. “It often sort of sounds nice and in some cases can work very well, but in other cases it can be a tool to slow things down for decades.”

One case where the DOD and commercial entities have made progress sharing, Brake said, is in the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band of the spectrum. 

While spectrum at high frequencies can travel at faster speeds but can go only short distances, and low-frequency spectrum can travel much further but also takes much longer, the CBRS lies in a “Goldilocks” middle band.    

The CBRS is mostly used by the Navy off the U.S. West Coast, so there are large swaths of time when it’s not being used by a majority of the country and is ideal for sharing, Brake says.

Engineers developed a database to store information from sensors in order to manage various entities sharing the spectrum to maximize its efficiency.

The DOD had initial concerns about the database being hacked and information about the location of naval vessels being exposed. But stakeholders have worked together to reconcile differences.

“There were steps to make sure that there is log encryption and that particular data was scrubbed or anonymized somewhat to keep it useful but still keep the information private,” Brake said, noting that with FCC auctions expected in the summer, the CBRS is “going to be the next tranche of spectrum that becomes available for commercial use.”

“It's still a little early,” he said, “but it's definitely a success story for this innovative database sharing regime and an area where the U.S. is pioneering ways to more efficiently use spectrum.”