Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service
Blog Editor’s Note: The author is President of the RNT Foundation.
“Precautionary principle: The principle that the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown should be resisted.” — Oxford Languages
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans almost 20 million acres. It is home to a vast array of wildlife from tiny pollinating flies to giant grizzly and polar bears.
It also has oil. Lots of oil.
Getting that oil out of the ground and to market would create jobs and benefit commerce. It would also harm the environment. Some wildlife would suffer.
Many argue the long-term harms of drilling outweigh the short-term benefits. The Biden administration agrees and has banned drilling to protect the refuge’s environment and wildlife.
The administration has taken a similarly conservative approach to preserving the spectrum environment for satellites.
Like the previous administration, it has urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to not allow Ligado Networks’ use of frequencies adjacent to spectrum assigned to GPS and Iridium Communications. The concern is that Ligado’s more powerful transmissions will harm some existing users.
A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine validated that concern. As is the case with many complex environmental issues, the total number of impacted individuals, and the total negative impact to the nation, are unknown. They may be unknowable.
As an independent agency, the FCC gets recommendations from, but does not report to, the administration. To date it has not been swayed by formal appeals from the executive branch, nor by those from numerous industry and non-profit groups, to rescind its decision allowing Ligado to operate.
Like other agencies making environmental decisions, the commission should use the “precautionary principle” when thinking about new uses and users. It is a well-recognized and systematic method of linking science and public policy.
More than “better safe than sorry,” the precautionary principle has four major tenets:
- increasing public participation in decision making
- shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity
- taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty
- exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions.
The first three of these were part of the FCC’s process in its Ligado decision, though critics of the outcome might question how rigorously each was applied:
- Hundreds of public comments were received before the order was issued.
- Critics note that opposition to the FCC’s eventual course of action was expressed by stakeholders across a very a broad spectrum of society.
- The applicant, Ligado, was required to bear the burden of proof.
- However, as the National Academies report says, different assumptions in Ligado’s analysis led it to an entirely different conclusion from studies done by the Department of Transportation.
- The FCC order allowing Ligado to operate includes “preventative actions.”
- Yet many see these preventative measures as unworkable window dressing. In the staid and reserved phrasing of the National Academies report, they “may in some cases not be practicable within operationally relevant time and financial parameters.”
Regardless of the virtues or sins of its process to date, the FCC’s path forward must hinge on the final tenant of the precautionary principle: “Exploring a wide range of alternatives in the face of uncertainty.”
The most obvious, simplest, and straightforward of these alternatives is for the FCC to assign Ligado different frequencies, ones more distant from those used by space-based applications.
Admittedly, this path is only “simple and straightforward” in concept. It will require restarting the frequency allocation process nearly from the beginning, detailed analyses, complex negotiations, and difficult decisions.
Yet the current situation means certain harm to an unknown but significant number of GPS and Iridium users. Harm that could, in some instances, be severe. Even life-threatening.
It also means harm for Ligado. As things stand now, the company will always be under a cloud in the minds of federal officials and other GPS and Iridium users. Ligado will also undoubtedly be blamed for a variety of problems not of its doing from solar weather to criminal jamming. And a significant mishap related to company-caused interference could cause it extreme harm. Perhaps even bringing about Ligado’s demise.
The radio frequency spectrum is a limited and critical national resource. The FCC’s desire to use it to best advantage is necessary and appropriate. This, however, requires great care to safeguard the overall environment and existing users.
Resolving the “Ligado issue” will require creativity and a departure from the adversarial approach that has characterized the FCC process to date. Let’s hope that as the commission reconsiders the issue, it finds a way for everyone to come out ahead.
Dana A. Goward is president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.