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Thoughts on Congressionally Mandated NASEM study on GPS & Ligado

Now that Congress has ordered a study of the FCC's GPS/Ligado Order by the The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine/NASEM, it is appropriate to address how objective NASEM has been in its previous interactions with FCC. FCC itself has not ordered a NASEM study for decades, mainly due to FCC's lack of resources to get any outside help on technical issues no matter how important or novel. However, other regulatory agencies with technical jurisdiction routinely order studies on their issues from NASEM.
(Perhaps FCC should ask itself why it is the outlier in not asking for NASEM studies and consider seeking funding for such in its next budget?)

NASEM was chartered by Congress at the request of president Lincoln to "provide independent, objective advice to inform policy with evidence, spark progress and innovation, and confront challenging issues for the benefit of society." It has a long and proud history.

The Strategic Plan for the National Academy of Sciences:2020-2025 states:

Our Vision: A nation and world in which people understand science to be foundational in their lives, and recognize NAS scientific advice as the gold standard for evidence-based decision-making that benefits society

In the early 1980s FCC did discuss with NASEM a study on the original DBS petition from Comsat, but decided that ti could not afford such a study. As a compromise NASEM put on a workshop on the technical issues. This is an "oral tradition" at FCC that in the 1970s NASEM studies was involved in the original creation of the Part 68 telephone interconnection rules and the original Part 25 C Band sharing rules for communications satellites and the microwave Fixed Service - both very successful groundbreaking FCC policy decisions that had been very controversial. On the other hand many other regulatory agencies with technical jurisdiction regularly ask NASEM about pending regulatory issues. Also DoD has been a constant supporter of NASEM studies on military non-regulatory issues. So DoD has a lot of experience dealing with NASEM while the current FCC leadership probably has no such experience.

NASEM usually uses outside reviewers on its reports to check for objectivity and technical quality. I was asked and served as an outside reviewer for 3 such reports over the last decade or so:
These reports were written by NASEM's Committee on Radio Frequencies/CORF which "considers the needs for radio frequency requirements and interference protection for scientific and engineering research, coordinates the views of the U.S. scientists, and acts as a channel for representing the interests of U.S. scientists." It is supported jointly by NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences and NASA's Space Operations Management Office.

For all of these three report I formally raised concerns about their objectivity in my confidential comments to NASEM. All 3 times the comments were ignored. Twice I raised such concerns to senior NASEM leadership at the advice of an acquaintance who once worked there. Consistently the response was that my concerns that interference-free spectrum sharing with communications users should be considered particularly if it can be shown feasible above 100 GHz was beyond the scope fo the study the sponsors had ordered. Thus the stated scope of studies can have a big impact on their conclusions.

But NASEM's CORF does not just issue such studies, it also files comments at FCC which are represented to be the views of The National Academy of Sciences and are signed by its president.

Now many of these comments are esoteric technical discussions of interference potential of FCC licensed systems to radio astronomy and passive satellites. But sometimes CORF acts more like a "hired gun" for NASA, its cosponsor. A good example is its comments in RM-11847, a petitions seeking interference-free access to passive bands above 100 GHz. Pages 1-13 waxes on with "motherhood statements" on the general value of spectrum where all other uses are prohibited - never mentioning that there might be an issue of "opportunity cost" for other uses of spectrum that are blocked or that interference-free sharing might be possible. But then p. 17-18 delves into an esoteric argument on how their interpretation of the obscure ITU Rules of Procedure forbids any sharing of passive spectrum included in ITU Radio Regulation 5.340 under any circumstances even if it doesn't cause interference. (This viewpoint is reminiscent of the NRA's view of the 2nd Amendment). Their analysis was rebutted in a reply filing by an industry group at CORF has never addressed. But the key question is was this filing a product of something NASEM's CORF should have been doing since it included no technical analysis or was it just an errand for NASA? NASA can not directly file comments at FCC, but, of course, it has an almost off the record path to FCC through NTIA which can communicate with FCC on ex parte issues like RM-11847 with minimal documentation requirements pursuant to §1.1204(a)(5). But this requires NTIA to agree with NASA, while filing though it friends at CORF and their private law firm avoids the "awkwardness " of getting consensus with NTIA. (I note that in a recent US contribution to an international meeting that NASA's objection to a draft I had prepared on a passive spectrum issue was overruled by State Department, probably with the concurrence of FCC and NTIA. So NASA may prefer to avoid seeking NTIA concurrence at times.)

So my advice of FCC on the new study NASEM study on GPS issues ordered by Congress is twofold:

  • Seek an active roles in agreeing on the members of the committee and the outside reviewers to make sure that they are not all deep fans of DoD and GPS interests and have objectivity on the issue at hand

  • Take an active role in reviewing and concurring on the statement of work for the NASEM study and make such DoD doesn't use it as a way to rule out "awkward" issues - taking advantage of their home court advantage at NASEM as a frequent sponsor of studies


2021 NDAA, FCC, GPS & Ligado Decision

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is the annual authorization bill for the US military and probably other "3 letter agencies". Wikipedia reports:

The $740.5 billion bill authorizes $636.4 billion for the Pentagon's base budget, $25.9 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy, and $69 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations account, a war fund that is not subject to budget caps. As an authorization bill, these amounts are non-binding.

Normally such legislation would never be mentioned in this blog, but this year's bill all be labeled "The Pentagon Strikes Back" for the Pentagon's supporters in Congress have taken action concerning the FCC's April 19, 2020 decision to "Approve Ligado's Application to Facilitate 5G and Internet Of Things Services". You blogger has written about the proposal of Ligado's predecessor LigghtSquared here twice and was briefly a consultant to LightSquared 5+ years ago.

The depths of DoD's concerns are summarized by Sen. Inhofe in a recent article in a DoD friendly newsletter. Personally, while I can see why the GPS industry is angry about this specific FCC decision, I have been puzzled why DoD is. The proposed 5G base stations would be modest in power and would be outside the GPS allocation and even separated by a guard band. Presumably military use of GPS has to work in a hostile environment where "bad guys" can use a lot more power that Ligado is authorized and can actually be inside the GPS L1 band. This point was raised at Congressional hearings and DoD witnesses assure members that there were classified approaches for handling that situation. Possibly antiradiation missiles to target the jammers?

As a public service your blogger has extracted the 3 pages of the massive bill that deal with this issue. (Also available here.)

§ 1662 provides that DoD

"may not enter into a contract, or extend or renew a contract, with an entity that engages in commercial terrestrial operations using the 1525–1559 megahertz band or the 1626.5–1660.5 megahertz band unless the Secretary has certified to the congressional defense committees that such operations do not cause harmful interference to a Global Positioning System device of the Department of Defense."

But § 1663 get more interesting. It directs DoD to contract with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a study of the impact of the FCC decision on DoD systems. The National Academies "shall carry out an independent technical review of the (FCC Ligado order) to the extent that such Order and Authorization affects the devices, operations, or activities of the Department of Defense." Note that this does not order studies of possible impact on non-DoD uses of GPS by ships, surveyors, and iPhone users. It will be interesting top see how narrowly the National Academies will interpret this. The bill goes on to include the following specific requests:

(B) Assessment of the potential for harmful interference to mobile satellite services, including commercial services and Global Positioning System services of the Department, or relating to or with the potential to affect the operations and activities of the Department.(C) Review of the feasibility, practicality, and effectiveness of the proposed mitigation measures relating to, or with the potential to affect, the devices, operations, or activities of the Department.

Those who follow your blogger on Twitter may recall numerous tweets citing the IEEE-USA 2018 Policy Statement on Improving US Spectrum Policy Deliberations. The recommendations in that document include both FCC and/or NTIA asking the National Academies for an independent review of complex technical issues and the possibility of using an independent committee of experts as FDA and CDC are doing in the Covid vaccine effort. (Actually such independent committees form a key part of FDA reviews of all new drugs and medical equipment.)

So now there is a National Academies study of a key FCC technical decision, but it came by Congressional mandate and it is being funded by DoD whihc presumably will have a greater role in framing the issues that FCC will. Also there will be a question of who sits on the committee that does the study. I can only imagine that the GPS crowd will try to "pack it" and I hope that FCC, which has little contact with the National Academies compared with other regulatory agencies with technical jurisdiction.

So the issue here is not just the fate of the FCC Ligado decision, but perhaps the first independent review of the quality of FCC's technical analysis and technical policy formulation. In reality, the FCC's technical resources are severely underfunding. OET is now 1/2 the number of FTEs it was when I joined in 1979. While some of this has been due to transfer of functions and deregulation, there is a real shortfall. In additional FCC's recruiting and career development for it technical staff has been severely lacking generally since 1981 except for the period of Chairman Powell who was genuinely supportive. My former colleague Julius Knapp retired a year ago as heat of OET and has never been replaced. One option might have been to replace him with someone hired 5-10 years after he was. But he was hired in 1977 and during the period 1981-1993 there was virtually no hiring of engineers at FCC. Thus it was probably impossible to find an internal candidate.

So it will be interesting to see how the National Academies deal with this issue. Will it vindicate the FCC review and decisions or fault the lack of attention to technical details.