The US just resolved a 10-year standoff over radio waves

Senator Mark Warner participates in a 2017 demonstration of Ligado’s technology.
Senator Mark Warner participates in a 2017 demonstration of Ligado’s technology.
Image: AP/Ligado/Ben Mckeown
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The FCC has ended a controversial, nearly decade-long battle over a chunk of radio wave real estate.

Their decision will allow a company (pdf) called Ligado to build an Internet of Things communications network using a band of spectrum that had previously been reserved for satellite communications.

Myriad US government agencies (and a number of private satellite operators) opposed the decision, fearing that Ligado’s network will interfere with the Global Positioning System (GPS), a vital cog for both the US economy and its military. But another chunk of the government believes that Ligado’s network will strike a blow against Chinese 5G hegemony, and so should be allowed.

“I’ve never seen it a mess like this before,” said Harold Feld, an attorney at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit that works to promote free expression and communications innovation. “All of the agencies are just acting on their own without any effort to create a coherent federal policy.”

The Departments of Defense, Commerce, Interior, Justice, Homeland Security, Energy, and Transportation, as well the National Science Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard and NASA, all called on the FCC to reject the license.

But Ligado spent almost $3 million in 2019 alone on lobbyists connected to the Trump administration, including Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union. Those lobbyists made the case that Ligado’s efforts are key to getting ahead of China in the race to roll-out 5G, the next-generation communications network, and won support from US attorney general Bill Barr—despite the Justice Department signing on to a letter of opposition in Februaryand secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

After the FCC’s decision, Barr said that “swift FCC action on spectrum is imperative to allow for the deployment of 5G. This is essential if we are to keep our economic and technological leadership and avoid forfeiting it to Communist China.”

But few experts think Ligado’s work is necessary for 5G, or to beat China to the technology. 5G is an increasingly nebulous buzzword—here’s the a comprehensive explanation—generally referring to the use of high-frequency spectrum to deliver faster connectivity in urban areas, and more broadly referring to network technologies that make more efficient use of several different types of radio spectrum.

The problem for Ligado is that its spectrum isn’t part of the US 5G plan proposed by FCC chair Ajit Pai. And its business plan isn’t focused on a general network, like the 5G capabilities being developed by major telecoms like Verizon and AT&T.

“Of course, all of this is just for domestic US market,” Brian Weeden, a researcher at the Secure World Foundation, told Quartz. “None of this does anything about preventing China from building out 5G networks in its own country or elsewhere in the world.”

Ligado began as a company called “Lightsquared,” and first applied for a license in 2011 to build out a mobile phone network. It entered bankruptcy in 2012 after its initial ground stations interfered with GPS signals, but distressed debt investors pulled it out of bankruptcy in 2016 in an attempt to recover the value of the spectrum it owned.

The FCC says that it took steps, like requiring Ligado to keep a hefty buffer between its signals and others, and limiting the power of its transmissions, that should prevent future interference. But for all our engineering know-how, it can still be hard to predict what will happen when its signals start interacting with a variety of GPS receivers on the market.

“There comes a point where you have to accept the FCC’s decision, the decision of the expert agency that, hey, we’ve taken everything into account here, and this looks good to go,” Feld says, arguing that innovation will be slowed and more power concentrated in a handful of operators if the FCC doesn’t allow smaller entrants to try new things after a reasonable period of evaluation.

“I think we got to a good policy result, it’s unfortunate that it’s being justified with this jingoistic anti-China rhetoric,” he says.

This story was originally published in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.