DOD, private sector leaders see danger to GPS due to FCC licensing ruling

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Marine Corps Cpl. Michael Parker, a field radio operator with 9th Communication Battalion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, conducts a radio check during an exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., April 29, 2020. (Marine Corps photograph by Cpl. Jason Monty)
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The Federal Communications Commission’s granting of a license to a private company threatens to undermine the Defense Department’s Global Positioning System capabilities, as well as that of the civilian sector, which also relies on GPS, DOD officials told Congress.

GPS is used for such things as precision timing and navigation for aircraft, cellphone coverage, precision weapons targeting and much more.

DOD Chief Information Officer Dana S. Deasy; Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael D. Griffin; Space Force Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations and commander of U.S. Space Command; and retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen spoke at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on DOD spectrum policy and the impact of the FCC’s Ligado Networks decision on national security.

Army 2nd Lt. Benjamin “Austin” Harrell and Army 2nd Lt. Levi S. Camden manage communications during a fire direction simulator on Fort Sill, Okla., April 27, 2020. To follow COVID-19 guidance, Harrell spoke on the radio through his face mask. (Army photograph by Sgt. Amanda Hunt)

Ligado is a U.S. satellite communications company formerly known as LightSquared.

Griffin noted that GPS was designed and developed by DOD, but is now used commercially for first responders, civil aircraft and commercial shipping, among many other vital usages.

“It’s all at risk now,” he said, and he explained why.

GPS relies on picking up very weak signals transmitted from GPS satellites to ground-based receivers. Ligado’s loud signals from a spectrum would effectively drown out those weak signals, he said. This would force the department to redesign and rebuild its infrastructure, which would cost billions of dollars and would take decades to accomplish, he added.

Allies and partners, seeing the damage that was done to U.S. GPS, would then possibly turn to competitors Russia and China for their systems, Griffin said.

Aaron Sebastian, left, and Howard Galliguez, engineers assigned to Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, perform operational checks on OE-570G UHF satellite communications antenna systems prior to delivery to the fleet. Naval Information Warfare Systems Command continues its fleet support mission throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. (Navy photograph by Rick Naystatt)

Deasy said DOD fully supports the United States being a leader of 5G technology, but that Ligado’s actions, if allowed, would not support that effort. DOD is preparing to do a number of experiments to get the nation to 5G, he added.

DOD and Transportation Department studies have shown that Ligado’s ambitions will be harmful to military and civilian GPS receivers and that there’s no way to protect millions of mobile GPS devices that would be disrupted, he said.

“GPS must always be a reliable service, particularly for first responders,” Deasy said.

Raymond said satellite signals have to arrive in a noise pristine environment. “We must preserve this spectrum. We should not cede our operational advantage to Russia and China.”

GPS receivers enable warriors to shoot, move and communicate with great precision at great distances, the general told the Senate panel.

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