In late June, BoatU.S. sent a warning to boaters who use GPS, urging them to prepare for possible signal interference on board and, potentially, the need to purchase new GPS-based equipment.
The warning followed a decision that the Federal Communications Commission made in April, when many boaters were distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic and government shutdowns. The FCC approved plans by the mobile satellite services operator Ligado Networks to build and operate a 5G network in a way that BoatU.S. and other opponents say will interfere with GPS signals—not just on boats, but also in aircraft, military operations and everywhere else that GPS is used.
“We think it was a bad decision by the FCC, and it should be reversed,” David Kennedy, BoatU.S. manager of government affairs, told Soundings in late June.
Arguments about the Ligado plan date back years, to when the company was called LightSquared. In 2011, the FCC approved a conditional waiver to let LightSquared bring its proposed network online, including transmitting signals in a new way. The pushback was strong, including from the U.S. Air Force and the GPS industry, which said the transmissions could overpower GPS signals coming to Earth from satellites in space. In early 2012, the FCC suspended the waiver indefinitely, and LightSquared filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The company emerged from bankruptcy in late 2015 and was renamed Ligado in early 2016. Ligado executives have since updated their network plan. They say concerns about GPS have been addressed and that only a fraction of GPS devices would be affected. The FCC agreed with Ligado, despite numerous opponents continuing to say that Ligado is wrong and that GPS interference will be widespread when the company’s network turns on (at a yet-to-be-announced date).
Some of the current pushback is from the U.S. Congress, where a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, including the chairmen and ranking members of the U.S. House and Senate Armed Services committees, threatened to block the FCC’s decision within days of it being announced. “Unless President Trump intervenes to stop this from moving forward, it will be up to Congress to clean up this mess,” the lawmakers wrote.
The FCC decision gives Ligado the green light to transmit signals on what’s known as the L-band, which means radio frequencies from 1.0 GHz to 2.0 GHz. The upper portion of the L-band, for years, has been used for cellular phone service, while the middle portion from 1.5 GHz to 1.7 GHz has been reserved mostly for GPS. “The GPS signal exists within a quiet neighborhood on the spectrum,” Kennedy says. “It’s dedicated to things like space-based communications. Satellites are far away, so it’s a weak signal. They’ve kept this neighborhood quiet so these GPS signals can be heard.” Ligado is planning to increase the noise in the GPS neighborhood. It plans to transmit across 1.5 GHz and 1.6 GHz channels, coming close to the GPS frequencies.
Proponents of the Ligado plan, including U.S. Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, say use of these frequencies is necessary to establish U.S. leadership over China in the race to create 5G networks that will power everything from the Internet of Things to the next generation of telemedicine. Pompeo called quick action on the FCC’s order “vital to our national security.”
Opponents say that other nations are achieving 5G goals without interfering in the GPS neighborhood of radio frequencies, and that even with the changes Ligado has made to its plans, its network will still cause GPS interference. “Imagine if your neighbor asked if you’d mind if they played a little music, and all the sudden they have a 10,000-person rock concert,” Kennedy says. “And the idea that this is going to be a miracle for 5G is a red herring. Nowhere else in the world are they talking about using this for 5G.”
If the signal interference occurs the way opponents say it will, then boaters using GPS would lose their signals altogether. They would not receive bad position information but would instead receive no information at all. It’s unclear whether certain types of GPS devices would be affected more than others, or whether newer units might fare better than older units at the helm. It’s possible that GPS manufacturers could design new devices to address interference after the Ligado network turns on and those problems are catalogued.
“Because there was such limited testing of GPS units, and to my knowledge, we don’t know if they tested any marine units or not, we don’t really have a picture of what is the actual exposure here,” Kennedy says. “The way these things have been designed is for a certain spectrum environment. Now, they’re talking about changing that environment.”
On June 23, BoatU.S. became one of five founding members of the Keep GPS Working Coalition, which claims to represent thousands of companies and millions of Americans. The other founding members are the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, which deals in construction, agriculture and off-road equipment; the American Farm Bureau Federation, representing farmers who use GPS for precision agriculture to optimize field use and more; the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, which uses GPS for construction and other uses; and the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, which says the FCC failed to adequately consider the fact that reliable GPS is critical to aviation safety.
“In issuing the Ligado order, the FCC threw millions of Americans who depend on GPS in their everyday lives under the bus with undue haste and inadequate consideration,” Dale Leibach, spokesman for the Keep GPS Working Coalition, stated in a press release. “Alarmingly, the commission also ignored concerns raised by Congress and federal agencies—the experts that rely on GPS to protect our national and economic security—including the Departments of Defense, Transportation, Commerce, Interior, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration.”
The Department of Defense, according to the press release, “has even argued before Congress that the interference from Ligado’s network would put missions and troops at risk. It is a highly questionable decision that benefits a single company and its Wall Street investors at the expense of national and economic security.”
The coalition supports legislation expected to come from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, that would require Ligado to provide financial relief to consumers, industries and any other affected users of GPS. The total amount of that financial relief is unknown, but Kennedy says that boaters, for one, should not be forced to buy new GPS units simply to deal with Ligado interference, especially since their onboard GPS units are working perfectly fine right now. And even if such legislation were enacted, Kennedy says, it may be hard for boaters to recoup their expenses.
“We’re talking about a single private company with an interest in keeping their network on, and then there’s me, the boater,” he says. “All I know is that my device all of the sudden becomes unreliable. I don’t know how to go and get them to fix it. We can’t call 1-800-LIGADO and say, ‘My GPS is broken.’”
For now, Kennedy says, Ligado has not begun to operate its system, so GPS should work the same way it has in the past. But whenever the Ligado network turns on, boaters will need to rely on multiple information sources for navigation instead of counting on GPS.
For its part, BoatU.S. plans to continue advocating for accurate navigation systems. “This is one of the oldest functions of the federal government,” Kennedy says. “Go back to when they were setting up lighthouses. This is something that we need the federal government for. This is a primary role that they need to do.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue.