Maps, Ligado Loom Large Over FCC Hearing

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Money before maps and the future of spectrum decisions were two big topics covered during yesterday’s Senate FCC oversight hearing. Both Senators and witnesses sat apart for safety and many lawmakers were not in the hearing room, but attending virtually from their offices.

The upcoming auction of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund money for broadband deployment makes fixing the FCC’s location data essential, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) said during the nearly three and a half hour hearing. The agency’s recent controversial decision to allow Ligado to use a portion of L-band for broadband delivery was discussed as well.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel clashed in their viewpoints of the map corrections.  

Rosenworcel said:” We can’t afford to delay [updating] our data any further. We’re making a choice between speed [of deployment] and accuracy. We need to do both.” She said studies show the bulk of unserved Americans live outside of suburbs, in the exurbs and rural areas. She wants to reserve “far more” of the $16 billion in funds slated to be dispersed over 10 years “for a time when we know our maps are accurate.”

Wicker chided Rosenworcel for “making a speech” and asked Pai to address her concerns, noting that the first step to participate in the RDOF auction takes place in July. That’s when the list of eligible areas is slated to be published, according to Pai. The auction begins in October.

Saying Rosenworcel’s concerns are “misplaced,” Pai assured lawmakers Phase 1 of the RDOF auction would concentrate on the areas the Commission knows for sure are unserved. He doesn’t want to delay the entire auction process while figuring out how to  provide connectivity to partially served areas.

Pai said Congress must give the FCC money to fix the maps, referring to the Broadband DATA Act. “We need money before maps. Otherwise [the Act] becomes an unfunded mandate,” he testified.

“It seems to me we’ve mandated this and it’s incumbent on Congress to get funds as soon as possible,” said Wicker. Then, to lighten the mood, he asked if Pai and Rosenworcel have dinner together. They both laughed, but did not answer the question.

Several Senators pressed Pai about the FCC’s Ligado order. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) pointed out that the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, the NTIA and other federal agencies are contesting the decision, saying Ligado’s power levels will interfere with GPS which is a safety concern. Duckworth asked Pai, given the opposition from several federal agencies, “why wouldn’t the FCC reconsider the order?”

Pai replied the issue was pending for more than a decade and the Commission made the decision “based on engineering and facts.” The unanimous vote came with several “stringent” conditions, which concern power levels, a guard band and mitigation efforts should GPS interference occur.

Noting the inter-agency fighting over Ligado, Mike Lee (R-UT), asked whether the decision “might reflect a broken agency process for spectrum decision making.”

“We’re going to need more airwaves for [the] 5G future. We can’t continue to wait 10 years to reclaim spectrum,” said Rosenworcel. She called for a “full valuation of federal spectrum. What do they own and how is it used? We need to make sure federal” agencies see a “budgetary gain and not just loss” when the FCC re-purposes part of their spectrum.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly agreed, noting that: “We need to improve the structure at NTIA,” which oversees federal spectrum. “Whether it’s NOAA, or NASA, or DoD, coming to us one by one…it’s not working.”

“We’re going to need more sticks to push this issue forward,” testified O’Rielly. “Congress needs to identify new federal bands that need to be converted. It’s a heavy lift and we can help you do it.”

Lee emphasized when someone comes to the FCC about spectrum needs, “they need to have a better argument than, ‘it’s a national security issue or it’s classified.’ It’s wrong, they know it’s wrong and we cannot let them get away with it.”

Pai stressed spectrum decisions are urgent. “We have to make tough decisions and we have to make them now. This is the argument in every band. You’ll find a federal agency that says, ‘I’m completely in favor of 5G, just not in this band.’”

by Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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