Ligado finally gets a light – and it’s green

After years of making its case, Ligado is finally getting a chance to move forward on L-band spectrum, with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai circulating a draft order that would approve, with conditions, Ligado’s application to deploy a low-power terrestrial nationwide network to support 5G and IoT.

But before the ink was dry, a coalition of opponents pledged to file a petition to dismiss Ligado’s pending applications – a coalition that includes FedEx, Delta, Lockheed Martin, JetBlue, Iridium, Helicopter Association International and a host of others. They argue that the dockets related to the Ligado proceeding should be closed and the whole thing dismissed.

“Given the tortured history of this proceeding and the current state of the record, the Commission and all parties concerned would be best served by starting with a clean slate, including Ligado itself,” the coalition stated. “To the extent that Ligado desires to file new applications to fit some new business vision that is consistent with its existing authority, it of course may do so.”

But, it added: “The Commission should put an end to this constant, fruitless distraction, and allow the parties to refocus their efforts on operating their businesses, as well as the affected federal agencies missions, and productively supporting the public interest.”

RELATED: Ligado proposal draws heat from helicopter community

That’s not where the FCC is headed, though. After Ligado's plans languished at the commission for years, including those under prior administrations, the agency said the chairman’s draft order would both promote more efficient and effective use of the nation’s spectrum resources and ensure that adjacent band operations, including GPS, are protected from harmful interference. The chairman’s announcement (PDF) didn’t say when the full commission would vote on it.

“After many years of consideration, it is time for the FCC to make a decision and bring this proceeding to a close,” Chairman Pai said in his statement. “We have compiled an extensive record, which confirms that it is in the public interest to grant Ligado’s application while imposing stringent conditions to prevent harmful interference. The draft order that I have presented to my colleagues would make more efficient use of underused spectrum and promote the deployment of 5G and Internet of Things services.”

The proceeding heated up in recent days amid renewed opposition by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Department of Defense (DoD) and numerous federal agencies concerned that allowing Ligado’s network to move forward could put their GPS in harm’s way.

RELATED: Ligado slams NTIA over GPS ‘fearmongering’

Pai acknowledged their concerns. “Although I appreciate the concerns that have been raised by certain Executive Branch agencies, it is the Commission’s duty to make an independent determination based on sound engineering,” he said. “And based on the painstaking technical analysis done by our expert staff, I am convinced that the conditions outlined in this draft order would permit Ligado to move forward without causing harmful interference.”

For example, the draft order would authorize downlink operations at a power level that represents a greater than 99% reduction from what Ligado proposed in its 2015 application, he said, noting that in recent years, Ligado has amended its application to significantly reduce the power levels of its base stations from 32 dBW to 9.8 dBW.

Ligado also committed to providing a 23-megahertz guard band using its own licensed spectrum to further separate its terrestrial base station transmissions from neighboring operations in the Radionavigation-Satellite Service allocation, the FCC said. As such, Ligado is now only seeking terrestrial use of the 1526-1536 MHz, 1627.5-1637.5 MHz, and 1646.5-1656.5 MHz bands. 

Ligado: Onward

Ligado President and CEO Doug Smith said the company looks forward to engaging with the other commissioners to drive the process forward.

“Since the very beginning of its long, comprehensive and collaborative analysis of the technical issues presented by Ligado’s application, the FCC’s dedicated staff has repeatedly shown its commitment to science-based, engineering-driven decision making, and Chairman’s Pai’s circulation of the Order regarding our license modification applications is the most recent example of this,” Smith stated.

“The central importance of mid-band – especially our lower mid-band – to 5G is well-known. As Ericsson and Nokia technical studies on our proposed network deployment have shown, the superior propagation characteristics of our spectrum will improve mobile 5G coverage – both outdoor and indoor – and in doing so, accelerate the deployment of 5G networks. Ligado is committed to the twin goals of protecting GPS while delivering highly secure and ultra-reliable communications to accelerate next-generation technologies and the Industrial Internet of Things,” Smith added.

Ivan Seidenberg, chairman of Ligado’s board and former chairman and CEO Verizon Communications, said he always believed that the L-Band spectrum can make a meaningful difference in the nation’s ability to connect.

“There is no doubt that lower mid-band has a key role to play if we are to build the very best 5G networks, and it is clear now more than ever that we must do just that. The FCC’s decision to move the approval process forward is an important and forward-looking one that will advance the public interest and U.S. global leadership,” Seidenberg said in a statement.

The FCC's move pleased CTIA and the Competitive Carrier Association (CCA).

“This multi-year process reveals the challenges at play in our nation’s spectrum policy and the need for stronger support for new commercial wireless services.  We need to all learn lessons from this process and ensure that decisions on key spectrum bands like lower 3 GHz occur in a more expedited and collaborative manner,” said CTIA Senior Vice President and General Counsel Tom Power.

"This long-awaited, positive progress comes at a critical time for all Americans, particularly those in rural areas, who are relying on mobile connections and services more than ever before,” said CCA President and CEO Steve Berry. “Mid-band spectrum provides real opportunities for deploying next-generation technologies, and competitive carriers are eager to access this valuable resource to expand and enhance their networks.”