L-Band Wireless Spectrum Myths Vs. Facts

Ross Marchand

May 18, 2020

Wireless spectrum is an important taxpayer asset and serves a pivotal role in closing the digital divide without spending taxpayer money.  In particular, the L-Band spectrum will enable the deployment of a low-power terrestrial network for 5G and the Internet of Things. But over the past several weeks, there has been no shortage of debate over the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) recent unanimous (read: bipartisan) approval order for Ligado’s application to modify its spectrum license for 5G deployment. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) has been following the case closely because of the potential to save taxpayer dollars and encourage private innovation and investment to bridge the digital divide.

The recent bipartisan approval for Ligado to harness the L-Band for 5G deployment was firmly grounded in science and accommodating to federal agencies such as the Department of Defense (DoD). But instead of respecting this neutral, fact-based process, a small group of vocal defense hawks are trying to intimidate the FCC from making future innovation-minded decisions. This opposition stems from the idea that the DoD should be able to trump the FCC’s proceedings when they dislike the outcome. The current interagency spat is a turf war usually hidden from public view, but now thrust into the limelight.

At a May 6 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, only witnesses in the employ of the DoD were allowed to testify. All these “experts” opposed the FCC’s decision, repeating debunked arguments about network testing, FCC processes, and alleged harms caused by L-Band interference. For unexplained reasons, the Committee did not accept offers to participate by anyone from the FCC or other interested parties who supported the decision.

To help correct the record in response to this unbalanced Senate hearing process, noted tech and telecom attorney Joel Thayer recently published a detailed examination and rebuttal of DoD claims regarding the L-Band. In addition, TPA has highlighted several myths flouted by DoD personnel about the L-Band and explained the truth of these matters:

Myth: The National Advanced Spectrum and Communications Network tests supporting the FCC’s L-Band decision were unreliable, not transparent. 

Facts: The National Advanced Spectrum and Communications Test Network (“NASCTN”), administered with the oversight of DoD and the Department of Commerce, has the mission of providing scientific and unbiased analyses on spectrum matters. In fact, the DoD directed Ligado to perform the testing it now claims was not transparent and DoD contractors participated in the testing. Before the test plan was even finalized, the team at NASCTN “received 159 comments from 10 different organizations, including spectrum regulators, federal agencies, GPS manufacturers and the general public. The draft test plan, the revised test plan, and the adjudicated comments from the review process are all publicly available on the NASCTN website.” (NASCTN Report)

  • The test plan and design were developed independently by NASCTN without input from Ligado and, in fact, included analysis of engineers at Fort Huachuca’s Electronic Proving Grounds, “the U.S. Army’s organization for testing command, communications, control, computer, and intelligence systems and equipment including testing of global positioning system (GPS) receivers.”
  • Ligado submitted its proposal to testing at NASCTN at the specific request of the DoD’s Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy, who was at the recent Senate hearing and failed to share that helpful detail.

Myth: There was no public comment process for evaluating Ligado’s 5G proposal.

Fact: There was a robust and extended public comment process. The FCC has been accepting comments for more than four years. The docket was open to participation from all stakeholders during that period. As it does in all similar proceedings, the FCC issued two public notices asking for comment on the application:

  • On April 22, 2016, the FCC posted a Public Notice in the Federal Register asking for public comment on Ligado’s proposal. Many comments were filed during the comment cycle but no party submitted a request to deny the application.
  • On June 2018, the FCC posted a second Public Notice and opened another public comment period.
  • Between the two comment periods, various stakeholders and interested parties filed over 100 comments into the FCC’s public docket.

Myth: The FCC did not go through its regular rulemaking process.

Fact: The FCC followed the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) rulemaking process every step of the way. In 2003, the Commission went through a rulemaking process to promulgate the rules for this specific spectrum. In processing Ligado’s application submitted in 2015 to modify its license to require dramatically reduced power levels, the FCC followed its rules and the process established by the APA. This open process was closely followed, and all documents were on the record and available to any interested party.

Myth: The federal government is unanimously opposed to the FCC Order.

Facts: The Department of State and Department of Justice both issued statements supporting the FCC Order. The five FCC Commissioners on a bipartisan basis voted to approve. And the decision, like all FCC decisions, is now subject to judicial review. In addition, the Departments of State, Agriculture, and Treasury as well as the Veteran’s Administration and United States Postal Service (all of whom are members of the IRAC) did NOT sign the Air Force memorandum which was submitted by the NTIA to the FCC on April 10, 2020.

Clearly, there are plenty of myths out there about the L-Band and 5G. But it’s a fact that the newly approved application for a low-power, nationwide 5G network will be a boon to millions of families and businesses struggling to get by due to the Coronavirus crisis. Hopefully, this analysis clears the air about this timely, pressing issue.