Image: Office of Sen. Inhofe
Blog Editor’s Note: Since this was written, 105 companies and organizations sent a letter of support to the bill’s sponsors. Read it here.
The author of the article is President of the RNT Foundation.
The bipartisan RETAIN GPS and Satellite Communications Act seeks to compensate all GPS and satellite communications users harmed by the April 2020 Ligado Order from the FCC.
On June 23, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) held a press event on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. There he announced his introduction of the “Recognizing and Ensuring Taxpayer Access to Infrastructure Necessary for GPS and Satellite Communications Act” or the “RETAIN GPS and Satellite Communications Act.”
Inhofe is the ranking member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. That committee’s chair, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), is a co-sponsor, as are Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Mike Rounds (R-SD).
The bill has several provisions, all of which are aimed at ensuring anyone using the frequencies the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated Ligado in April 2020 will compensate all GPS and satellite communications users that are harmed.
This would pose a significant increase in financial liability for Ligado. Under the current FCC order, is only responsible for reimbursing the federal government for costs to modify systems and replace equipment.
Many see this provision as manifestly unfair. “The FCC is requiring Ligado to pay damages to federal equipment, so the company should also pay damages to equipment owned by ordinary Americans,” said George Washington University economics professor Diana Furchtgott-Roth.
“With Ligado 5G transmitters overwhelming GPS signals, pipeline maintenance and systems operations would be affected. Plus, private pilots might find that navigation technology does not operate, joggers might find that their health trackers ceased to work, and firefighters might not be able to get to their destinations.”
She estimates the cost of damage to non-federal entities to run into the billions of dollars. Furchtgott-Roth previously served as and Acting Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy at the Department of Treasury and Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Transportation.
The FCC decision was, and remains, controversial. Seven different petitions to reconsider were filed by various organizations and coalitions, including the National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA) on behalf of the entire executive branch.
The FCC has yet to respond to any of the petitions, though it has denied requests to stay its order pending resolution of concerns.
Inhofe has long been concerned about the FCC’s action. As then-chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he held hearings, issued press releases, and made public statements aimed at Ligado’s financial backers and potential backers. All warn of disastrous consequences should Ligado’s plan for transmissions in the bands adjacent to GPS be put into operation.
Inhofe also ensured several provisions were included in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that addressed the FCC’s action. These include:
- A requirement for the Department of Defense (DOD) to estimate and report to Congress the cost of damage to department systems as a result of the FCC order.
- Prohibiting use of department funds to upgrade or modify military equipment to make it resilient to interference caused by broadcasts in the spectrum allocated (the FCC order requires this to be funded by Ligado).
- Prohibiting DOD from contracting with any entity using the frequency bands allocated to Ligado unless the Secretary of Defense certifies the use will not interfere with GPS services.
- Requiring the Secretary of Defense to contract with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for an independent technical review of the FCC order.
More information about the proposed “RETAIN GPS and Satellite Communications Act” is available at the Senator’s website.
Dana A. Goward is President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. The foundation has petitioned the FCC to reconsider its decision regarding Ligado Networks.