The cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline has increased awareness of the fragility of infrastructure. It should also serve as a reminder to policymakers of a very real threat to the Global Positioning System, and of an ill-advised decision that protects government users from having to foot the bill when their GPS receivers are affected--while ignoring ordinary Americans and industries.
The risk comes from an April 2020 Federal Communications Commission order granting an application from Ligado Networks to operate a terrestrial network using spectrum next to the bands reserved for GPS. And while the FCC’s order acknowledged the risk by requiring Ligado to pay for damages to federal devices, it does not require the company to compensate individuals and companies, such as pipelines, helicopter terrain awareness warning systems, car navigation systems, and power plants -- costs that could run into the tens of billions of dollars.
Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has proposed requiring that Ligado reimburse private individuals and companies whose receivers are damaged, as well as federal agencies. Entitled the “Recognizing and Ensuring Taxpayer Access to Infrastructure Necessary for GPS and Satellite Communications Act” (RETAIN GPS and Satellite Communication Act,) his bill as drafted would ensure that all the private costs of the FCC Ligado order will be covered by the licensee.
Pipeline systems rely on GPS to time-stamp pressures and flow rates, and to measure pipeline integrity and stress to make sure operations are safe. Much of America’s infrastructure depends on GPS, which uses a constellation of 24 satellites to provide positioning, navigation, and timing services for the electricity grid, as well as for financial services, agriculture, construction, and transportation.
Power companies use GPS for real-time measurement devices to operate the electricity grid. University of Texas Professor Todd Humphreys has written about the dangers of power networks being damaged by GPS spoofing, in which hackers alter the GPS-derived timing signals into giving erroneous results.
The FCC’s order states that Ligado has to work with federal government agencies to identify equipment that would be affected, and develop “a program to repair or replace any such devices that is consistent with that agency’s programmatic needs.”
And costly damages to infrastructure are likely. These days, practically all infrastructure uses GPS. The National Telecommunications Information Administration, on behalf of the entire Executive Branch, filed a petition asking the FCC to reconsider the Ligado approval, citing “irreparable harms to federal government users of the Global Positioning System.” If federal users will be harmed, private users will also be affected.
With Ligado 5G transmitters overwhelming GPS signals, pipeline maintenance and systems operations would be affected. Plus, private pilots might find that navigation technology does not operate, joggers might find that their health trackers ceased to work, and firefighters might not be able to get to their destinations.
Senator Inhofe’s draft bill specifically states that Ligado, or a future licensee if Ligado chooses to sell the spectrum, would be responsible for “costs of any modification, repair or replacement of equipment, spares, associated ancillary equipment, software, facilities, operating manuals, training, or compliance with regulations, including with regard to the underlying platform or system in which a GPS capability is embedded and to satellite communications systems and equipment.”
It is only fair that any damages to Americans and infrastructure companies should be covered in the same way that the FCC is requiring Ligado to pay for damages to federal equipment.