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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.