Yet More Problems for Ligado

COMMENTARY Technology

Yet More Problems for Ligado

Jan 4, 2023 5 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Diana Furchtgott-Roth

Director, Center for Energy, Climate, and Environment

Diana is director of the Center for Energy, Climate and Environment and the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Fellow.
Ligado's signals will be two billion times as powerful as received GPS signals, and hence may cause interference to vital GPS signals. BlackJack3D / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Ligado is in severe financial difficulties and has not succeeded in deploying its network.

Ligado’s signals could interfere not only with navigation devices on general aviation and helicopters, but also with systems in ambulances and fire trucks.

Ligado, a company that could harm ordinary Americans in multiple ways by weakening GPS, has yet another barrier to overcome.

In April 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave Ligado Networks LLC some unexpected good news.

Although Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist had stated that “FCC approval of Ligado's license modification would cause unacceptable operational impacts and adversely affect the military potential of GPS,” the FCC ignored the Pentagon’s concerns. It gave Ligado permission to deploy a terrestrial network in spectrum next to a band reserved for the global positioning services (GPS) in order to offer 5G services.

Yet today, almost three years after receiving FCC approval, Ligado is in severe financial difficulties and has not succeeded in deploying its network.

The Reston, Va., based company will try to overcome its latest setback next week, when it is due to answer charges filed on Dec. 15 in the Supreme Court of New York State by Inmarsat, a British global mobile satellite operator.

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Inmarsat alleges that Ligado is defaulting on a $395 million payment due Jan. 1, 2023. In addition, Inmarsat charges that Ligado will not be able to pay quarterly obligations through 2107 which, adjusted for inflation, will allegedly total $23 billion. Inmarsat is seeking damages and a return of its spectrum.

It is well known that America’s economy and its military readiness depend on GPS, which uses a constellation of 32 satellites, to provide positioning, navigation, and timing services not only for transportation, but also for defense, energy supply, the electricity grid, financial services, agriculture, and construction.

The problem for Ligado is that its signals will be two billion times as powerful as received GPS signals, and hence may cause interference to vital GPS signals. According to the Space Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board, which provides independent advice to the federal government, “virtually all receivers will be degraded if they are too close to a Ligado Transmitter.”

Ligado’s signals could interfere not only with navigation devices on general aviation and helicopters, but also with systems in ambulances and fire trucks. Signal interference with GPS could be life-threatening when an ambulance or a fire truck is trying to find a house.

In addition, some athletes might find that their health trackers do not function. Pipeline systems may be affected because they rely on GPS to time-stamp pressures and flow rates, and to measure pipeline integrity and stress to make sure operations are safe.

Inmarsat contends that, even though Ligado cannot pay what it owes, Ligado intends to keep the spectrum rights that it purchased from Inmarsat. Under their contract, Ligado paid Inmarsat $700 million in October 2020, and is allegedly supposed to pay Inmarsat another $395 million on Jan. 1, 2023, and $15 million quarterly through 2107.

Ligado, in its turn, is alleging that under the “cooperation agreement,” Inmarsat was supposed to modify all Inmarsat’s clients’ maritime and aviation terminals that might be subject to interference from Ligado transmitters in order to make these resilient. Inmarsat denies that it was supposed to modify all the terminals—and asserts that it was only responsible for making sure that no interference occurred.

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But the Inmarsat lawsuit is not the first challenge Ligado has faced. Consider the following:

  1. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), in May 2020, on behalf of the entire Executive Branch, challenged the FCC’s approval due to concerns about Ligado’s interference with GPS.
  2. Although the FCC has so far refused to reconsider, the Biden Administration is continuing the NTIA challenge.
  3. Ligado wanted to get revenue from its spectrum by selling or leasing it to Verizon, but Verizon did not purchase the spectrum.
  4. Ligado has not managed to set up a terrestrial network.
  5. Under the 2020 National Defense Appropriations Act, any company that uses Ligado’s network is not permitted to have a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense, a substantial disincentive to doing business with Ligado.
  6. A September 2022 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that high-precision receivers will experience “significant harmful interference from Ligado emissions as authorized by the FCC.” According to NTIA, “The Report from the National Academies indicates that Ligado’s terrestrial operations would cause harmful interference to GPS devices and that a number of the FCC’s mitigations would be practically unworkable.“

Ligado has not yet overcome any of these challenges or explained to the public exactly how it plans to do so.

The disagreement between the two parties is technical to the layman. What is clear is that Ligado, a company that could harm ordinary Americans in multiple ways by weakening GPS, has yet another barrier to overcome. Ligado’s response to the Inmarsat complaint is due on Jan. 4, 2023, and will signal whether Ligado will be able to overcome yet another obstacle.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/dianafurchtgott-roth/2022/12/28/yet-more-problems-for-ligado/?sh=11836a871bbd