TR Daily NTIA Refuses to Recommend Grant of Ligado License Modifications
Monday, December 9, 2019

NTIA Refuses to Recommend Grant of Ligado License Modifications

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration said that it can’t recommend that the FCC grant Ligado Networks LLC’s request to modify its licenses, citing concerns by the departments of Defense and Transportation and other federal agencies about the impact of the company’s planned broadband network on GPS operations. The development is the latest blow to Ligado’s hopes of constructing a nationwide network.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai submitted late Friday in IB dockets 11-109 and 12-340, Douglas Kinkoph, NTIA’s acting deputy administrator, said that “[t]he assessment of the potential impacts of the Ligado proposals has been thorough. Based on these assessments, federal agencies have significant concerns regarding the impact to their missions, national security, and the U.S. economy. Despite the considerable efforts to find a satisfactory solution, NTIA, on behalf of the executive branch, is unable to recommend the Commission's approval of the Ligado applications.

“Enclosed is a [Dec. 3, 2018] letter to NTIA outlining concerns with the Ligado license modification applications from the Acting Co-Chairs of the Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Executive Committee (ExCom) from the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Transportation (DoT), on behalf of their two departments, other Federal Government GPS users, and PNT ExCom members representing the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, the Department of State, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The PNT ExCom letter makes clear that ‘proposals to operate services in bands adjacent to GPS should not be approved unless, at a minimum, they do not exceed the tolerable power transmission limits’ described in the DoT ABC Final Report. In addition, DoD has reiterated its opposition to approval of any proposed operations that do not fall within the limits identified in the DoT ABC Final Report.”

The acceptable technical limits referred to in the DoT report involve the position of executive branch agencies that a 1 decibel increase in the noise floor should be the metric used to determine harmful interference. The GPS industry also supports the 1 dB standard.

The FCC declined to comment today on NTIA’s letter.

At a House communications and technology subcommittee hearing last week (TR Daily, Dec. 5), Mr. Pai noted that the FCC shared a “proposed resolution” with the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee, which requested additional time – until last Friday – to review it.

Ligado, which has sought to convince regulators and other parties that the network it wants to deploy won’t harm GPS operations, opposes use of the 1 dB threshold and favors use of key performance indicators (KPIs). It maintains that it can operate without causing harmful interference to government or private-sector GPS systems.

Ligado’s predecessor company LightSquared, Inc., filed a request to modify the licenses in late 2015 to fulfill the conditions in spectrum use agreements it hammered out with GPS equipment makers (TR Daily, Jan. 4, 2016). The company agreed to abandon terrestrial use of the 1545-1555 megahertz band, which is close to GPS operations, while saying it would only deploy in the 1526-1536 MHz, 1627.5-1637.5 MHz, 1646.5-1656.5 MHz and 1670-1675 and 1675-1680 MHz bands under the new technical limits.

Ligado also wants the FCC to reallocate and auction the 1675-1680 MHz band, which is used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Earlier this year, the FCC unanimously adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking proposing to reallocate the 1675-1680 MHz band for shared use between incumbent federal entities and non-federal wireless operations (TR Daily, May 9). Ligado wants to deploy a nationwide satellite-terrestrial wholesale broadband network.

In its letter Friday, NTIA noted that “Ligado has portrayed its proposal as integral to the advancement of 5G mobile services in the United States,” but the agency noted that “[m]ore than 900 megahertz of spectrum is already available for licensed mobile services in frequency ranges generally preferred for mobile services (i.e., below 6 gigahertz), with at least an additional 1,100 megahertz below 6 GHz under study. This is in addition to the 11 gigahertz of spectrum that has been made available or is under study for licensed use in the high-band frequency ranges the wireless industry indicates are critical to support key 50 capabilities. As a result, an inability to deploy terrestrial 5G or related services using the frequencies involved in the Ligado applications will not hold back the timely deployment of 5G across the United States.”

NTIA also stressed that “[t]he accuracy and ubiquitous availability of the Global Positioning System (GPS) is fundamental to the Nation's economy, national security, and continued technological leadership. A recent study sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) estimated the economic benefits of GPS for private sector use at a range between $903 billion and $1.8 trillion as of 2017.”

The attached letter from the PNT ExCom said that Ligado’s proposed network “would exceed the tolerable power limits necessary to prevent disruption of GPS receivers. Based on the results of the extensive studies the NTIA should recommend to the FCC against approval of the license modification.”

A Nov. 18 letter to Mr. Pai from Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper cited the 2018 PNT ExCom letter and a letter sent to Mr. Pai in April by acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan.

“Consistent with my statutory responsibilities, I believe there are too many unknowns and the risks are far too great to federal operations to allow Ligado’s proposed system to proceed. All independent and scientifically valid testing and technical data shows the potential for widespread disruption and degradation of GPS services from the proposed Ligado system. This could have a significant negative impact on military operations, both in peacetime and war. I, therefore, strongly oppose this license modification,” Mr. Esper said in his letter. “I request that the FCC reject the license modification request and not allow the proposed system to be deployed. Further, consistent with the PNT EXCOM decision, the Department also recommends that proposals for use of bands adjacent to GPS should not be approved unless they meet the transmission power levels described in the Department of Transportation's Adjacent Band Compatibility Assessment.”

In a statement released late Friday, Ligado criticized NTIA’s letter to the FCC.

“It is important that the NTIA finally communicated its views on Ligado’s mid-band spectrum plan to the FCC. What’s appalling is that it took so long for NTIA to do nothing but regurgitate information which has already been sitting before the FCC for years and attempt to redefine harmful interference,” said Ligado President and Chief Executive Officer Doug Smith.

“This latest letter is nothing but a cut-and-paste of the same false claims about the DOT adjacent-band study premised on 1 dB that opponents of Ligado have been making for years and trying, unsuccessfully, to convince the FCC to adopt. The engineers and experts at the FCC clearly understand the negative consequences for current and future spectrum bands if 1 dB is applied to adjacent spectrum bands. Adopting this framework would be a departure from FCC precedent, sound spectrum policymaking and physics,” Mr. Smith added. “With this latest submission, no one can argue that the record is not complete and so the time to make a decision is now. The final step is for the FCC to determine whether this tired and old information requires any change to its proposed resolution and then move forward to a decision.”

In an ex parte filing dated yesterday, Ligado complained that the NTIA letter “leads with a stunning and absurd suggestion: that plenty of spectrum is available for 5G and that no more spectrum is needed. That statement puts the Department of Commerce at odds with the White House, Chairman Pai, and all of the other FCC Commissioners, bipartisan spectrum leadership in Congress, and the entire wireless industry. It is clear to everyone but the Department of Commerce that more spectrum is needed for 5G, and as leading 5G equipment manufacturers have stated in this proceeding, Ligado’s spectrum can help facilitate the 5G transition. The only good thing about the Kinkoph Letter is that the Commission can finally move forward and rule on the pending applications, which have been pending for four years, and free up 40 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for 5G.”

Ligado added, “Beyond the stunning claim that no more spectrum is needed for 5G, the Kinkoph Letter conveys no new information, no new analysis, no new data, and no new arguments and makes no recommendation to the Commission. It asserts that GPS is important to the Nation’s economy; as has been demonstrated repeatedly in the record, Ligado agrees.”

“The uncomfortable truth that the Kinkoph Letter has no choice but to ignore is that all the evidence in the record convincingly demonstrates GPS devices will not be harmed under Ligado’s spectrum proposal,” Ligado said. “The Kinkoph Letter has to ignore this powerful evidence because it has nothing to say in rebuttal, since the letters it attaches from other agencies have never studied harmful interference and instead focus solely on the 1 dB C/N0 metric.”

“It is profoundly disappointing that after four years of analysis, the expert spectrum engineers at NTIA were not permitted to state that Ligado’s proposal will not cause harmful interference or that use of this spectrum for 5G is in the national interest,” Ligado added. “Instead, the Kinkoph Letter merely indicates that it is unable to recommend the Commission approve Ligado’s applications. The good news is that the Commission has extensive facts in the record that do recommend the applications be approved. That evidence includes the company’s agreements with the major GPS manufacturers, the extensive tests on harmful interference discussed above, the extensive conditions the company proposed to protect all stakeholders, and all the other data assembled over the past four years.”

Allies of Ligado have urged the FCC to approve the license modifications. Several of them weighed in to reiterate their support of the company in the wake of the NTIA letter.

“NTIA’s recent letter brings nothing new to the table and fails to make a valid case against the Ligado applications,” said Steve Berry president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, which counts Ligado as a member. “While NTIA states that it is ‘unable to recommend the Commission’s approval’ of the applications, it does not recommend dismissing the proceeding, and NTIA’s statement that preventing terrestrial access to mid-band spectrum where feasible will not hold back timely deployment of services is plainly wrong. The U.S. is in real need of critical mid-band spectrum to deploy 5G and next-generation technologies, and utilization of lower mid-band spectrum like the L-Band is especially important to serve rural areas. There is no question that the record is now complete, and I encourage the FCC to vote on the Order and ensure as much valuable mid-band spectrum as possible is made available for terrestrial use.”

“At this critical juncture in the transition to 5G, WIA continues to support the need to put into use Ligado Networks’ critical mid-band spectrum,” said Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association. “The concerns raised by the NTIA letter have already been addressed by Ligado and there does not seem to be any need to slow this process down or make it even more difficult to repurpose any spectrum for commercial next-gen wireless systems. Ligado’s proposed use of the L-band would provide new opportunities for infrastructure investment, deployment, and connectivity for Americans across the country. We understand Chairman Pai has a proposed resolution, and we urge the Commission to move this forward as soon as possible.”

“There is a desperate need to quickly make additional mid-band spectrum available for 5G use in the United States. After losing precious time dithering over a private sale or public auction of C-band spectrum, the FCC must not let another mid-band opportunity languish,” said Doug Brake, director-broadband and spectrum policy for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “The December 6 letter from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regarding Ligado’s license modification comes after years of careful study of the use of this valuable L-Band spectrum. Hopefully this letter can finally prompt the FCC to bring productive closure to this issue. NTIA’s letter appears to lack new substance responsive to the numerous steps Ligado has taken to protect adjacent GPS services. What’s worse, following NTIA’s recommendation could also set a dangerous precedent of defining harmful interference with the absurd 1 dB standard, which would have disastrous implications for current and future spectrum bands. Chairman Pai should demonstrate the FCC’s independence and take decisive action to free up this spectrum for more productive use.”

“The American people expect federal agencies to follow the rule of law and pursue the best scientific evidence when it comes to technical questions,” said Roslyn Layton, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Unfortunately the recent letter on L-band modifications from NTIA [acting Deputy Administrator] Kinkoph to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai failed to incorporate NTIA technical analysis. It simply parroted the fake claims from the Departments of Defense and Transportation that FCC engineers already addressed in the resolution they sent to NTIA for review. Moreover, the NTIA response ignored the FCC Chairman’s resolution and disrespected his gesture of good faith. In any event, not needing to incorporate NTIA’s faulty lack of conclusion into its decision, the FCC can stay focused on the 5G prize and its Congressional mandate to make more spectrum available. Sadly for the NTIA, its lack of a strong leader has rendered it the handmaiden of the Defense Department.”

“The letter that @NTIAgov submitted to @FCC just repeating old claims regarding possible interference from @LigadoNetworks use of fallow L-Band spectrum calls to mind the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: ‘There is nothing new under the sun,’” Free State Foundation President Randolph May tweeted. Mr. May urged the FCC to act on Ligado’s license modification requests and also said that “it is surprising to see @NTIAgov arguing that use of the L-Band spectrum will not play a role in promoting #5G deployment.”

GPS Innovation Alliance Executive Director David Grossman declined to comment on NTIA’s letter. In a blog posting last week, he touted what he said are the benefits of employing a 1 dB increase in noise floor metric as the standard for assessing harmful interference.

Andy Roy, director-engineering services at Aviation Spectrum Resources, Inc., which coordinates radio communication licensing for the aviation industry in the U.S. and its territories and is one of a number of aviation entities that has expressed concern about Ligado’s network, said that it “shares the concerns expressed by NTIA and the named federal agencies in their determination that the Ligado proposal in its current form would disrupt national GPS functions and therefore the US economy. The aviation community has long supported the extensive open assessment conducted by the DOT to ensure the protection of GPS services and the safety of the flying public. With the overwhelming evidence provided by the expert national agencies which underlies the NTIA letter, it is clear Ligado’s proposal, as it stands, should not be approved by the FCC.”

The saga of Ligado/LightSquared to launch its network has been going on for many more years than since the license modification request was made in 2015.

In 2012, the FCC’s International Bureau moved to vacate LightSquared’s conditional authorization and indefinitely suspend its ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) authority in the wake of NTIA’s recommendation at that time that LightSquared’s LTE network can’t operate as planned without causing harmful interference to government GPS receivers (TR Daily, Feb. 14, 2012). NTIA’s recommendation was not a surprise given an earlier statement by the PNT ExCom that LightSquared’s system could not operate without causing harmful interference to GPS operations and that no further testing should be conducted (TR Daily, Jan. 13, 2012).

LightSquared filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection soon thereafter (TR Daily, May 14, 2012); it emerged from bankruptcy in 2015 (TR Daily, Dec. 4, 2015) and changed its name in 2016 (TR Daily, Feb. 10, 2016). —Paul Kirby, [email protected]

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