Are We Messing Up 5G on Our Way to 6G?

Senior Biden administration officials will gather at the Commerce Department today to give us our first clues about their policies that will shape the United States’ 5G future.

This is an opportunity to build on previous efforts to convert government licensees for private sector 5G uses. Spectrum policy leadership and planning is critical to complete the U.S. 5G ecosystem while planning for the next-generation wireless technology, 6G. It’s also essential to shed some mistakes of the past.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo indicated in her confirmation hearings that a “whole of government” – from the executive branch to Congress — is critical to 5G leadership. She’s right. She’s also right on the need to avoid 5G pretenders which will negatively undermine national security. Exhibit A is “Ligado Networks, the subject of a letter from the secretary earlier this year.

During the last administration my old agency made a big mistake by approving an application by Ligado to let it “rezone” its satellite spectrum licenses for terrestrial use. Extensive testing from the private and public sectors have shown Ligado’s operations could cause harmful interference to the satellite communications and GPS services that have been operating for decades in the satellite spectrum neighborhood called the “L-Band.” After years of silence, the Federal Communications Commission suddenly granted Ligado’s petition last spring, echoing Ligado’s sales pitch that its tiny amount of spectrum would somehow help the United States in the race to 5G. But the stark reality is that Ligado’s spectrum is poorly suited for 5G and it cannot become a real 5G company with it.

Ligado simply does not have enough spectrum to run a nationwide 5G network. Engineers for America’s wireless operators desire large spectrum blocks 100 megahertz wide and grouped together to better feed consumers’ growing bandwidth appetite. But Ligado’s blocks are only 10 megahertz wide and are far apart from one another.

Furthermore, with 35 megahertz, Ligado simply does not have enough spectrum in total. The national carriers, in contrast, have hundreds of megahertz of spectrum across many different frequencies, and they still need more. And during its latest refinancing at junk bond interest rates last year, Ligado only had about $125 million left over — not enough to build 5G facilities in one big city, let alone a nationwide network. Instead of building a real 5G company, Ligado’s investors are probably more likely to try to sell its spectrum for a windfall courtesy of the FCC.

Hearing the outcry from scores of private-sector companies and 14 federal agencies over the enormous threat from Ligado’s potential harmful interference with satellite communications and GPS, last January Congress took the rare step of forging a large bipartisan majority in both chambers to override a presidential veto and adopt legislation that seeks to rein in Ligado and study the harmful effects of the FCC’s ill-conceived order. But Ligado is busy trying to undermine that bipartisan consensus and overturn last year’s safeguards.

The Biden FCC could help protect the integrity of America’s vital satellite communications and GPS services by freezing last year’s Ligado order while it reconsiders this profound mistake. Spectrum policy has historically been a hallmark of bipartisan cooperation. Collaboration across the aisle over the decades created policies that spurred America to win the global race to 4G.

Conceived and implemented during the past three administrations, bipartisan rules are helping unleash more than $275 billion in private risk capital to build 5G networks. As a result, the wireless industry supports over 4.7 million jobs, according to Accenture, and 5G will contribute $500 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

More work needs to be done in this spirit to solidify America’s lead with 5G and to lay the foundation for 6G. But Ligado is not equipped to be part of that story. Its attempt to profit from regulatory arbitrage would undermine critical American economic infrastructure supported by satellite communications and GPS.

Even though the FCC is divided between two Democrats and two Republicans — effectively in political limbo — the four commissioners could turn a new page to fix the Ligado mess while working on priorities that could actually help 5G, like spectrum auctions. During many months of my seven years on the FCC, we worked productively with fewer than five commissioners and it can be done again. But let’s not mess up 5G on the way to 6G by catering to 5G pretenders like Ligado.


Robert McDowell, who served as a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from 2006 to 2013, is a partner at Cooley LLP, which has clients with an interest in the Ligado matter.

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