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Dear FCC, please don’t mess with our GPS, military tells senators

Contract award to satellite company raises fears at Pentagon that GPS could be disrupted

Senate Armed Services Chairman James Inhofe, left, talks with ranking member Jack Reed, right prior to the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday on Department of Defense concerns over a recent FCC decision.
Senate Armed Services Chairman James Inhofe, left, talks with ranking member Jack Reed, right prior to the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday on Department of Defense concerns over a recent FCC decision. (Shawn Thew/EPA/POOL)

Senators and Pentagon officials on Wednesday criticized the Federal Communications Commission for giving a small satellite company permission to build a new fifth-generation wireless network, arguing that the decision is likely to hurt GPS systems and military readiness.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., the Senate Armed Services chairman, said the FCC’s decision to approve the network license would “place at risk the GPS signals that enable our national and economic security for the benefit of one company and its investors.”

A licensing request by the company, Ligado Networks LLC, was approved by the FCC on April 19, a Sunday, leading Inhofe to accuse the agency of trying to operate in secrecy.

“[The FCC] waited until the whole world was distracted by COVID-19,” Inhofe said, “and when everyone was looking the other way, unannounced to the public, in total secrecy on a weekend, passed the most controversial licensing bill in the history of the FCC.”

Inhofe said his characterizing of the FCC’s decision was based on widespread opposition by the Pentagon, other federal agencies, and numerous private sector industries that worry the GPS system could be disrupted by Ligado’s satellite technology.

“The federal agency opposition was unanimous,” Inhofe said. “Not just the military, but all of the government and the private sector, including the airlines, the farmers, the truckers, the maritime manufacturers, opposed the licensing and the FCC knew it. Hence, we had the weekend vote.”

Not everyone opposed

But opposition to the decision is not as unanimous as Inhofe said. The episode has pitted the military and other federal agencies against others within the government, including Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who represents Ligado’s home state of Virginia. 

Caught in the middle is the White House, which has sought to fast-track construction of a fifth-generation wireless network, known as 5G, throughout the United States. 

Inhofe said he discussed the FCC’s decision with President Donald Trump, whom he said was not “clued in” on the issue.

Dana Deasy, the Pentagon’s chief information officer, said the Defense Department “fully supports” the Trump administration’s 5G goals. However, he said, “there’s a right way to go about it and a wrong way to go about it.”

“Ligado does not provide a 5G solution and is not offering a solution to be a 5G leader in America,” Deasy said, calling the company’s spectrum holdings “fragmented and impaired.”

“The bottom line is that 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 prepared testimony.

[U.S. military poised for post-pandemic shift]

Both the lawmakers and Pentagon officials said a provision in FCC’s agreement with Ligado requiring the company to fix any problems incurred by military GPS systems was insufficient.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the committee’s ranking member, said that even if Ligado offered to replace faulty GPS cards embedded in Pentagon weapons systems, the effort required to identify which systems are affected would compromise military readiness.

“How many weapons systems will be affected, how they can be fixed, and the time and cost of the remedy is unknowable, but the process will be lengthy and expensive,” Reed said.

Neither Ligado nor officials from the FCC testified at the hearing. In a statement following the FCC’s approval of the company’s application last month, CEO Doug Smith thanked the agency for concluding that Ligado could build a 5G network “while fully protecting GPS.”

“Our spectrum can be very instrumental in the transition to 5G, and we look forward to utilizing satellite and terrestrial services to deploy customized private networks and deliver innovative, next-generation Internet of Things solutions for the industrial sector,” Smith said in a statement.

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