As 5G's Promise Comes to Fruition, Chicken Littles Emerge
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We all remember when turning on your mobile device during take-off or landing could mean planes “falling out of the sky.” That’s not a thing. As 5G comes on the scene and promises $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy and 4.5 million new jobs new jobs over 6 years, a new Chicken Little scenario emerges.   

In the fight for use of scarce airwaves, the independent Federal Communications Commission often finds itself pitted against cabinet agencies like the Pentagon, Commerce Department and Department of Transportation. At one point, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, claimed 5G would vastly interfere with weather forecasting just to try and hang on to under-utilized spectrum rather than audit their uses and turn some of it over for 5G.     

Yet another government agency turf war, this time between the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration, making claims no less ridiculous than the “end of weather,” is delaying deployment of major 5G networks that were scheduled for December 5th. This all after years of back and forth between the agencies, the airlines, satellites, and wireless providers about how to safely and efficiently reallocate spectrum in what is known as the C-Band for wireless use.   

Right before the holiday travel season and many Americans feeling ready to travel again, the FAA comes with a last-minute complaint that in some very unlikely scenario radio altimeters, cockpit instruments which tell pilots how close a plane is to the ground as it comes in for a landing, might not function. That might sound scary at first, but let’s look at the facts.   

First, nearly 40 other countries have deployed 5G in the C-Band for 5G networks, but US planes still fly uninterrupted and without complaint into these 5G air spaces. US airspace is no different. Over the last three years there have been no interference claims in Japan or the two dozen European countries where 5G base stations are already operating. Australian and South Korean carriers are successfully operating 5G base stations today as well, without claims of interference from airlines. On top of that, more than 17 years of analysis by international regulators was conducted on the ability of wireless to operate in the C-Band environment. This analysis born out in many existent international use cases obviously concurs with the FCC’s findings on the safe co-existence of 5G and aviation.   

Second in the years of back and forth between the agencies and airlines about deployment, it was suggested by the airlines that they only needed a 100 Mhz guard band, but the FCC erred on the side of caution and provided 400 MHz of space for the initial tranche of deployments and 220 Mhz after that.    

It’s important to understand how much leeway the airlines are really getting. The radio frequency spectrum is divided up into bands with varying ranges. Many of these blocks are contiguous and often as small as 5 MHz wide. In fact, all FM radio stations are contained within a 20 Mhz band. The C-Band ranges from about 3.7 to 4.2 GHz, but US wireless operations will only occur in the 3.7 to 3.98 range, leaving the massive 400 Mhz guard band, since altimeters use spectrum in the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz range.    

After all of this, wireless providers were still willing to plop down a whopping $81 billion at auction plus nearly $10 billion to satellite providers to clear the spectrum on an expedited schedule for the opportunity to provide 5G via unencumbered bands. In fact, over the last three decades, wireless providers have shelled out $220 billion during spectrum auctions, and much of that cash went directly back to the American taxpayer as a direct payment to the Treasury. If the FAA delays or otherwise hinders deployment any further, it undermines the US spectrum auction process, placing future auction revenues at risk and threatens future agreements made between incumbents and new users by the FCC.   

It’s hard to understand why, after years of open public proceedings, the FAA would wait until just now to voice complaints, especially with so much evidence to the contrary. Such last-minute ditch efforts have come up before in other inter-agency disputes, but none have successfully derailed 5G. Further FAA deployment delays risk America’s competitiveness and jeopardizes US global 5G leadership. Several FCC leaders, including FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel, have been clear: “We have to work fast to put this spectrum to use in service of the American people.”   

In fact, a bipartisan letter from six previous FCC Chairman to FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel and NTIA Acting Administrator Remaley, encourages stakeholders respect the process which is designed to “surface and resolve precisely the types of interference issues being raised here and to do so well in advance of licensing and service launch… In this case, the FAA position threatens to derail the reasoned conclusions reached by the FCC after years of technical analysis and study.” 

The FCC is the agency tasked with determining commercial spectrum allocations. They have the experience and engineering expertise to make these determinations and have a very long track record of success with spectrum auctions and reallocating spectrum to best uses. It’s time to put turf wars aside and move forward with the very well vetted FCC spectrum plan mirrored by nearly 40 countries abroad.   

Katie McAuliffe is Executive Director of Digital Liberty, and Director of Federal Policy at Americans for Tax Reform. 

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