“Right now, our concern is that a farmer is going to be using their tractor out in the field and notice things are off,” Karney said. “I’m not sure a farmer is going to know how to get a hold of Ligado, or how responsive Ligado will be to an individual farmer. What the RETAIN Act does is it puts the financial burden where it needs to be, which is on Ligado.”
The legislation is expected to be introduced Thursday by Senate Armed Services Committee leaders Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who are responding to similar concerns from the Department of Defense, which operates the GPS constellation, and the Department of Homeland Security. Both agencies opposed the FCC license to Ligado.
Karney spoke to POLITICO about the new coalition’s strategy and how it hopes to grow its membership.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
How was this coalition founded?
It stems from a similar group about a decade ago when this issue was first brought to light with the interference of GPS. That coalition was called Save Our GPS. … That’s really when this issue really began. The company Ligado at the company was known as LightSquared. So, yes, this is a new group … but I know at least the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Association of Equipment Manufacturers were involved in Save Our GPS about a decade ago.
We decided this coalition was needed to help elevate the issue and bring it back to the forefront because when the FCC order was announced in the height of quarantine and Covid response, it flew low under the radar. One of the reasons this group was founded was to elevate and bring concerns with GPS interference to light.
Are you looking for more members?
I have heard from other organizations that are interested in joining. We will be looking to grow this coalition. … I know at least I have spoken to other organizations that are starting to … go beyond the issues just related to their Covid-19 response. They are looking at some of the issues that went under the radar at the time. … Now they’re able to turn their attention to some of these newer issues.
How is the coalition structured?
Every member is on an equal footing. We’re all coming at it from different angles and different industries but at its core, the mission comes down to preserving the current GPS system. All the industries represented within this coalition … rely on the accuracy of GPS. From the agriculture side, GPS is the foundation of precision agriculture. … To be able to get down to a square inch level of accuracy on where that seed needs to be placed in the soil … that relies on the accuracy of GPS. Precision agriculture overall has made farmers more efficient, more economical and also there’s an environmental stewardship component that reduces the level of water you might need to put into your soil, the amount of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides that might need to be applied.
GPS requires a very quiet neighborhood … to be accurate. The concern with Ligado … is that it’s like bringing in that loud neighbor. … That’s the concern. That’s what we’re trying to prevent.
One of the things that’s very baffling with FCC’s order from an American Farm Bureau Federation perspective is the FCC just established a precision agriculture task force, which is tasked with looking at connectivity needs near agricultural land. … With this order, the FCC took major steps back.
What are your top policy priorities?
The RETAIN Act … says that Ligado should be responsible for any interference that it causes. Right now, our concern is that a farmer is going to be using their tractor out in the field and notice things are off. The accuracy is not there. … Who is the farmer going to call? The farmer is going to call the equipment dealer … [and say], “I just spent $200,000 on this piece of equipment, now it’s not working for me.” Then the dealer is going to have to figure out what the issue is … all the while it has something to do with GPS interference. … The dealer may go back and say, “This is because of GPS interference. You have to go call Ligado.” I’m not sure a farmer is going to know how to get a hold of Ligado, or how responsive Ligado will be to an individual farmer. What the RETAIN Act does is it puts the financial burden where it needs to be, which is on Ligado.
We also continue to advocate for the FCC to reverse its order, or take a stay on implementing its order. That’s where the focus is right now. The third priority here is to bring public awareness.
Do you expect the coalition to exist in perpetuity?
I think a lot is going to depend on where the issue ends up. … We’re waiting to see what the FCC decides to do about the petitions for reconsideration that were filed and also the outcome of the Inhofe-Reed bill. I don’t know a direct answer on how long it will exist. But in the current environment, we know it needs to be in existence.