The Federal Communications Commission’s decision this week to approve a 5G high-speed information network from Ligado, a Virginia-based satellite communications company, has sparked an open clash of wills among President Trump’s senior Cabinet advisers.
The FCC this week unanimously approved Ligado’s application to set up the network, despite warnings from Pentagon officials that it could impair other functions on the spectrum — in particular the vital Global Position System.
“The vote at the Commission reflects the broad, bipartisan support that this order has received,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said. Officials and analysts say the U.S. has fallen far behind Chinese and European competitors in the race to build the next-generation national information networks, designed to handle the heavy data demands of emerging technologies such as smart cars, drones and high-speed computer networks.
FCC officials said they included “stringent conditions” while approving Ligado’s application to ensure there wouldn’t be any interference. The company is required to limit the power level of its bases stations and report their locations and technical operating parameters to local governments or any industry stakeholders before starting operations, officials said.
But Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was not satisfied — the Pentagon openly fears the FCC’s Ligado decision will “needlessly imperil” the Pentagon’s GPS-dependent weapons systems and information networks.
The Defense Department “continues to support domestic 5G options, but not at the risk of crippling our GPS networks. Nearly a dozen other federal agencies have joined us in opposing the proposal,” Mr. Esper said in a Twitter message.
But two other big names in the administration back the FCC: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General WillliamBarr.
Mr. Pompeo said the FCC draft order “will help ensure that the United States is the global leader in advanced technlologiessuch as [artificial intelligence]. Accelerating the deployment of 5G is essential to our country’s growth and global economic security.”
Mr. Barr argued the FCC green light was critical to allow for the deployment of 5G capabilities in the U.S..
“This is essential if we are to keep our economic and technological leadership and avoid forfeiting it to Communist China,” Mr. Barr said. It “should greatly reduce the cost and time it will take to deploy 5G throughout the country and would be a major step toward preserving our economic future.”
Capitol Hill is likewise divided. Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and former cellular industry executive, and others praised the FCC move, but it met with bipartisan opposition from both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, who appealed to President Trump to reverse the FCC award.
“Our creation of these networks must not hamper our military’s operational capacity in any way,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat. While China’s market lead was a problem, he added, Ligado‘sproposal constituted “an even bigger security threat.”
“This is fundamentally a bad deal for America’s national and economic security and the timing could not be worse,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said in a joint letter.
“Many of the chips that receive GPS signals are embedded in thousands of weapons systems, which will have to be taken apart at great cost and replaced,” they wrote.
In approving their application, the FCC said Ligado is obligated to continuously monitor the transmit power of its base stations sites and respond to credible reports of inference, if necessary by rapidly shutting down operations where warranted.
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