It is an unprecedented time for America. Federal agencies are working around the clock on rulemakings and decisions that will move our country forward and help the economy return to full speed. My old agency, the Federal Communications Commission, is one of them.
Under Chairman Ajit Pai’s leadership, with the support of his Republican and Democratic colleagues, this FCC has acted to help citizens get the connectivity they need to work and learn from home. We should not let rent-seeking speculators distract us from that goal.
Recent reports suggest that the FCC may approve an application by Ligado Networks, formerly known as LightSquared, to “rezone” its satellite licenses in a dangerous fashion. Ligado’s petition faces broad-based, bipartisan, public and private-sector opposition. Plainly stated, Ligado’s proposal would fundamentally disrupt critical American private-sector satellite operations by causing harmful interference — all to help a speculator flip its assets for a windfall. The Ligado proceeding must be terminated now.
Ligado is a company that has a long history of creating controversy. In 2010, LightSquared asked the Obama administration’s FCC to rezone speculative satellite radio licenses into terrestrial mobile wireless licenses to give them a windfall by government fiat. The mistake, however, was that the FCC rushed LightSquared’s approval without properly considering the “noise,” or harmful interference, new zoning would cause to neighboring private-sector satellite companies. I know, I was a commissioner at the FCC at the time.
The FCC had violated its own decades-old policies governing America’s airwaves: changes in spectrum zoning must avoid harmful interference to existing licensees. LightSquared’s request triggered a flood of interference concerns from a wide array of private sector licensees as well as their commercial and government customers.
At the time, the commercial GPS industry presented compelling evidence that LightSquared’s terrestrial network would disrupt vital navigation services to planes, ships, and cars. At the time, the Department of Defense sounded the alarm over the rezoning’s harmful effects on critical and often classified military equipment that relies on private-sector satellite services.
It was, and remains, an embarrassing and dangerous mess.
Today, LightSquared has rebranded itself as Ligado Networks but not much else has changed. Ligado’s parcel of satellite spectrum still sits right next to existing private-sector satellite licensees including Iridium Communications, and testing still shows Ligado’s proposed operations would interfere with these critical services which include aircraft navigation. Just as it did 10 years ago, the FCC record continues to fill up with strong evidence of harmful interference created by Ligado’s plans. In a letter to the FCC last fall, a coalition of essential satellite, aviation, weather, and public and commercial interests put their concerns plainly, “this interference will threaten aviation safety [and] other critical services.”
This FCC cannot afford to make another bad decision now. Commercial flights, cargo planes, and medivac helicopters could see disruptions in their ability to navigate, jeopardizing the safety of millions. Satellite communications users, including armed forces special operations, could face interference to critical communications. And weather services could lose the ability to track devastating storms.
Instead of working hard to resolve harmful interference issues, Ligado, like LightSquared before it, continues to blitz D.C. with lobbyists.
Now, in addition to a broad coalition of private sector entities, the country’s top civil and military officials have sounded the alarm over Ligado’s plan. Last November, Defense Secretary Mark Esper sent a rejection request to the agency charged with collecting the federal government’s views on spectrum matters and transmitting them to the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. And last Friday, senior NTIA official Douglas Kinkoph sent a letter to the FCC with more concerns from the Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration, noting that the FCC cannot “reasonably reach” a conclusion that Ligado has solved harmful interference concerns.
Historically, this FCC, led by Chairman Pai, has shown a commitment to protecting Americans and choosing physics over politics. If they do that here, all five FCC commissioners will vote to deny Ligado’s dangerous proposals.
Not surprisingly, Ligado’s many lobbyists are pushing a ridiculous narrative this time, that their spectrum is essential for U.S. success in the global race to 5G. The narrative is deceptive and demonstrably wrong.
The FCC under Pai has brought forth more spectrum from government licensees for private sector 5G uses than anyone thought would be humanly possible. But Ligado’s spectrum block sizes and placement are poorly suited for 5G, and aren’t even part of Chairman Pai’s 5G FAST Plan. Approving Ligado would not help the United States in the race for 5G, and is a distraction from that endeavor. In fact, granting Ligado’s proposal would threaten American national security, emergency services, and vital communications companies — all to benefit investors in a speculative spectrum scheme.
The premise for Ligado’s 5G rent-seeking is hollow, and the potential for harm is real and alarming. The FCC should put an end to this dangerous charade once and for all.
Robert McDowell served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from 2006-13 and is currently a partner and co-leader of the global communications practice at Cooley LLP, whose clients include Iridium, which has filed opposition to Ligado before the FCC. In 2014, McDowell appeared in the bankruptcy trial of LightSquared as an expert witness to testify on the issues of FCC process and timing.
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