Barr, Pompeo cheer FCC as agency bucks Pentagon in airwaves fight

But skeptics including the Pentagon scoff at Ligado’s plans, contending that they would cause severe interference with GPS signals that are critical for the military.

Some defense hawks on Capitol Hill are so alarmed they’re asking President Donald Trump to intervene.

“It’s not clear that the unanimous position of the entire executive branch — in opposition — is being given sufficient consideration, and we think it’s important that the president is aware of this issue,” a Republican spokesperson for the Senate Armed Services Committee told POLITICO on Thursday, suggesting Trump should make sure the FCC is “doing its due diligence.”

Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement later Thursday that “I’m not pleased, to say the least, that the chairman is pushing forward with a draft order approving Ligado’s application, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. This action will amplify, rather than ease, current economic challenges.”

Inhofe added: “When people try to push bad policy through in the middle of a crisis, without much coordination with seemingly anyone else, it makes me wonder about their motives.”

“The FCC cannot be allowed to overrule the unanimous opinion of America’s national security leaders,” Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Thursday evening. “If they do, Congress should immediately revisit and revise their authority.”

The FCC, as an independent agency, is not subject to Trump’s commands, although he nominates commissioners and elevated Pai to the chairman’s role in 2017. The commission still needs to vote on Pai’s proposal, although he’s expected to have little trouble getting a majority on the five-person panel.

The Pentagon’s opposition has not changed, a defense official confirmed Thursday following Pai’s announcement. The Pentagon had twice registered objections in 2019, and Barr’s praise notwithstanding, multiple executive branch agencies have formally told the FCC they have concerns. Cabinet agencies endorsing those qualms included DOJ and the Transportation, Homeland Security and Energy departments, which signed off on a Feb. 14 memo outlining objections to the plan.

Besides Barr and Pompeo, Ligado’s supporters include other wireless companies and trade groups, as well as Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, a former wireless executive. Its lobbyists include Matt Schlapp, a major Trump ally who is president of the American Conservative Union.

This airwaves debate reflects mounting tensions in recent years that have pitted the FCC against several Trump Cabinet agencies, as well as an administration leadership gulf that has failed to stem the chaos. Trump had promised a national spectrum strategy by last summer to help firm up the nation’s 5G game plan, but that hasn’t materialized. And the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is supposed to help mediate administration fights over airwaves, has lacked a permanent leader for just under a year.

Congressional pressure, meanwhile, will probably stay strong on the Ligado spat. House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) recently wrote to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao raising his own concerns about Ligado’s bid.

At issue is whether the company’s service would disrupt the GPS operations in nearby airwaves. The military contends the problem would be severe and require billions of dollars to replace GPS equipment. Ligado and the FCC suggest that conditions attached to the approval can prevent any such dire circumstances.

“It’s pretty unusual for the FCC to move forward over NTIA’s objections,” said Paul Gallant, a telecom analyst for the research firm Cowen. “But the FCC has skin in the game here, so their engineers clearly must feel there won’t be interference with neighboring GPS.”

Gallant added that he expects Ligado to prevail.

“Spectrum coordination has become really messy in this administration, which is strange because the White House is so focused on 5G,” he said. “But in the end, Ligado is an FCC call, and the White House trusts Pai.”

Past telecom industry ties also unite some of the key players in the debate.

Barr, who had lauded Ligado’s proposal in a speech in February, worked alongside Pai years ago at Verizon, when Barr was the company’s general counsel. Verizon’s chairman at the time was Ivan Seidenberg, who is now chairman of Ligado. Before his confirmation as attorney general, Barr also worked at Kirkland & Ellis, which had previously represented Ligado when it was called LightSquared.

A DOJ spokesperson told POLITICO that Barr has never represented Ligado in its current or former incarnations, nor has he had any financial stake in the company. Barr first put the spotlight on the Ligado issue in his February speech, in which he suggested that the FCC needed to open these airwaves to allow the U.S. to compete with Beijing.

“I was pleased to see him bring that level of exposure to it,” Ligado CEO Doug Smith told POLITICO during an interview in February, suggesting that Barr’s remarks “raised the profile of the issue.”

“He helped bring more attention to it, which I love,” Smith added. “It’s what we need.”

Ligado, meanwhile, has spent handsomely on lobbying in recent quarters, doling out more than $2.5 million across the last year and employing Schlapp and other lobbyists in a bid to appeal to Trump 5G advisers like Larry Kudlow.

Some advocates for Ligado blame its obstacles on executive branch agencies that overstate the risks of lighting up these airwaves with advanced wireless connectivity.

“As the U.S. works to lead the world in 5G innovation — and as we work to promote wider coverage here in the U.S — it’s all the more important to ensure valuable mid-band spectrum is put to use,” said Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Ligado, a Virginia company, has endured years of back-and-forth as the issue has been studied and re-studied. I encourage the Commission to approve this draft order expeditiously.”

The trade group CTIA, which represents wireless players like AT&T and Verizon, is “pleased to see that the FCC has managed to cut through the red tape,” general counsel Tom Power said, suggesting the U.S. needs to learn lessons to act on airwaves “in a more expedited and collaborative manner.”

Barr and some other industry advocates, including Ligado itself, have suggested that the airwaves in question could pair well with 5G-friendly airwaves in the so-called C-band, which Pai is aiming to sell to wireless carriers starting in December. If wireless carriers embrace such a pairing, New Street Research predicted in an analyst note on Thursday, Ligado could try to sell its spectrum before that December auction.

“The Ligado order should have been adopted years ago,” said Michael Calabrese, a telecom specialist working for the think tank New America. “While it’s heartening that Chairman Pai is standing up to unreasonable federal agency efforts to block more efficient uses of spectrum, the compromises needed to overcome the balkanization and NIMBYism that afflicts the Trump administration’s incoherent spectrum policy are disheartening.”

He compared the situation to Pai’s battles with the DOT over the use of another spectrum band, which DOT contends should be reserved for automotive safety technology rather than unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi. “In both cases, the FCC did what politics allowed, but not what the agency would have done based purely on the technical and economic merits,” Calabrese argued.

But a wide mix of industries is still deeply skeptical of Ligado’s claims and eager to see the FCC chairman’s proposed order, the text of which is not yet public.

Airlines like Delta and Southwest are joining with FedEx, a trade group of 911 public safety officials and the defense contractor Lockheed Martin to urge the FCC to shut down the proceeding.

“Given Ligado’s failure to adequately address the harmful interference at the heart of its proposals and the convoluted and dated record for this proceeding, the most appropriate action for the FCC to take is to deny the Ligado applications by terminating the associated dockets,” they told the commission on Thursday.