This week the CEOs of the nation’s biggest airlines issued a public letter warning of “catastrophic disruption” to the nation’s air travel systems if wireless carriers were allowed to continue their deployment of fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology.
But while major airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) insist that 5G deployments will cause disastrous interference with avionics equipment, experts and the wireless industry say the threat of actual safety issues is minimal, and any air travel chaos or disruption that does occur will have been caused by FAA delays and incompetence.
The concern about interference stems from the wireless industry’s planned deployment of fifth generation wireless (5G) technology in the so-called “C band.” This spectrum, which exists from 3.7 to 4.2GHz, was historically used from the 1970s onward for older satellite TV technologies, but has since been vacated for use in U.S. 5G deployment plans.
Despite years of often-silly hype, U.S. 5G networks have been widely criticized for being much slower than their overseas counterparts. That’s in large part thanks to a dearth of so-called “middle band” spectrum, which provides 5G networks with both decent speeds and range. Instead, U.S. 5G relies heavily on low-band spectrum (slower speeds, great range), and high-band spectrum (great speeds, but poor range and building wall penetration).
After spending $80 billion at auction last February to nab C-Band spectrum, the wireless industry had planned to begin deploying the much-needed upgrades this week. But those plans were disrupted by continued claims by both the airline industry and FAA that deployment in the C-Band would disrupt plane altimeters and other sensitive navigation equipment.
The problem: evidence of actual interference has been hard to come by. The wireless industry has been quick to point out that more than 40 countries worldwide have deployed 5G technology in the same band—often even closer to avionics equipment than is planned here in the States—without incident.
“Within the nearly 40 countries operating 5G in the C-Band today, there is not a single report of 5G causing harmful interference with air traffic of any kind,” the wireless industry said.
While the FAA has been raising concerns about potential interference for much of the last year, its own agency releases have also acknowledged there has “not yet been proven reports of harmful interference due to wireless broadband operations internationally.”
Harold Feld, a lawyer at consumer group Public Knowledge and an expert in U.S. wireless spectrum policy, told Motherboard there has been no new data to justify the airline industry’s freak out this late in the deployment process.
“We have seen no new evidence of anything,” Feld told Motherboard. “No new studies. No lists of altimeter equipment with their sensitivity to potential harmful interference.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—the federal regulator specifically tasked with managing and understanding spectrum assets—studied the issue for years before the C-band auction and concluded the potential for interference was minimal. Just to be safe, the FCC proposed a 220 MHz guard band—double the size recommended by companies like Boeing—to further reduce any potential interference. But that wasn’t enough for the FAA.
Last fall, the FAA began leaking frightening stories about significant safety risks to outlets like the Wall Street Journal. The FAA also forced a delay in wireless carrier 5G deployment despite having no clear evidence of the interference claims it had been making for months.
Last December, a bipartisan coalition of six former FCC chiefs penned a letter accusing the FAA of derailing U.S. 5G deployments for no coherent reason. The agency was clearly annoyed that its expertise in wireless spectrum management was being ignored, noting that the FAA had ample opportunity to express its concerns earlier in the review process, but didn’t.
“The FAA position threatens to derail the reasoned conclusions reached by the FCC after years of technical analysis and study,” the Commissioners said.
On January 4, the FAA and wireless carriers struck a deal to delay 5G deployments by two weeks as the FAA cooked up a list of altimeters proven to be safe around C-Band 5G deployments, and flight restrictions for planes whose hardware had yet to be approved. But industry watchers, including Feld, say the FAA also failed to meet those obligations.
The failure resulted in a “nightmare” of global flight cancellations and delays, as many global airlines weren’t able to determine whether they’d be in compliance with unfinished FAA guidance. Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon announced they’d be delaying C-Band 5G deployments near some airports, but were quick to blame the entire mess on the FAA.
“At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment,” AT&T said.
“We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it to do so in a timely manner,” the company added.
In a statement, FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel also made it clear that any delays at this point fell squarely in the lap of the FAA.
“The FAA has a process in place to assess altimeter performance in the 5G environment and resolve any remaining concerns,” she said. “It is essential that the FAA now complete this process with both care and speed.”
It’s rare that consumer advocates and AT&T agree on much of anything, but in this instance, both sides blame FAA incompetence for this week’s chaos. Feld notes the agency wouldn’t respect the FCC’s authority and analysis, wasn’t willing to provide transparent evidence for its interference concerns, and failed to issue guidance despite years of advance warning.
“The airline industry and FAA just do not know how to take no for an answer,” Feld said. “This is coupled with a level of arrogance, ignorance and sanctimony that are utterly mind boggling,” he added.
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