Turning on 5G will have no Impact on Airlines | Citizens Against Government Waste

Turning on 5G will have no Impact on Airlines

The WasteWatcher

The latest effort by a government agency to fight and deter much-needed progress to ensure that the United States remains the global leader in 5G communications has taken center stage as the new year begins.  In one corner of the 5G ring, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) are teaming up to take on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the other corner.  Outside of the ring, the airlines and telecommunications industries are also duking it out. 

On December 31, 2021, FAA Commissioner Steve Dickson and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg requested that the two primary awardees of licenses in the C-Band spectrum band, AT&T and Verizon, delay deployment of the new networks by another two weeks.  The companies had already agreed to a one-month delay from the original December 5 deployment date.  The request was counterpunched in a January 1, 2022 letter from Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, followed by what should have been a knockout punch in a January 2, 2022 letter from the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon.  But the fight is not over, as the two companies agreed on January 4, 2022, to yet another two-week delay in deploying their 5G networks.

The FAA and DOT continue to claim that 5G deployed in the C-Band will create interference with altimeters in airplanes if the spectrum is turned on in the vicinity of airports.  But this has not occurred in any of the other 40 countries that have deployed 5G in this spectrum band, and the FCC took into consideration these claims during its lengthy rulemaking process.  The ongoing interference in spectrum issues by departments and agencies that have no expertise in the subject matter has been the subject of prior letters and blog posts from Citizens Against Government Waste. 

For example, a December 19, 2019, letter signed by CAGW, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, FreedomWorks, and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, joined by Roslyn Layton of the American Enterprise Institute and Christopher Koopman of the Center for Growth and Opportunity, “cited the ‘dysfunction of the bureaucracy’ and delays by ‘DoT, DoD, DoE, DoC, NASA, NOAA –in proceeding after proceeding –24 GHz, 5.9 GHz, 2.5 GHz, 3.1-3.55 GHz, L-band, and 6 GHz – … to block the introduction of more spectrum into the market which threatens to stifle innovation and hurt the economy.’”  This resistance has so far been mostly overcome by the FCC, which has done a more than thorough job in its rulemaking proceedings. 

As Commissioner Carr noted in his scathing letter to Secretary Buttigieg and  Administrator Dickson, the department and the aviation industry had ample opportunity to weigh in on C-Band spectrum prior to it being divided and auctioned for 5G deployment.  He noted that not only is the FAA circumventing a congressionally mandated regulatory process, but also its “request for delay is not backed up by the science, engineering, or law.  Indeed, your arguments are predicated on the claim that there are unresolved concerns about harmful interference from C-Band operations into radio altimeters.  That is not correct.  The FCC – the expert agency charged by Congress with addressing precisely those types of concerns about harmful interference – resolved these issues all the way back in March 2020 in the 258-page decision referenced above.  After detailed analysis, the FCC determined that the comprehensive rules and regulations it adopted for C-Band operations will protect aeronautical operations from harmful interferences.”

The commissioner further noted the extraordinary efforts to accommodate the aviation industry in its analysis, stating, “the FCC’s thorough analysis rests on more than the expert scientific and engineering analysis of the agency’s career staff.  It is backed up by the aviation industry’s own experiences in the real world.  C-Band operations have been live in nearly 40 countries, including ones that have authorized C-Band services at higher power levels than the FCC or in closer spectral proximity to radio altimeters without any reported instances of harmful interference.” 

Indeed, during the comment period, Boeing requested 100 MHz of spectrum be used as a guard band between the spectrum used by aviation for altimeters and the spectrum to be auctioned by the FCC for 5G use.  The FCC responded to Boeing’s concerns by more than doubling the guard band to 250 MHz.  

The company CEOs wrote in their January 2 letter that the FCC's “compelling reasons” for concluding that aeronautical services in the C-Band would be fully protected include the fact that “radio altimeters do not operate on, or anywhere near” the same frequency.  They are separated by at least 400 MHz from AT&T’s C-Band frequencies, and 220 MHz from Verizon’s frequencies.  They also cited the lack of interference in the 40 other countries that have deployed 5G around airports.  The two companies paid $80 billion for this spectrum, which is a significant amount of money for the taxpayers, and its deployment would be a significant victory for consumers and businesses at a time when the economy needs to maintain and expand its recovery from the pandemic.    

Some observers have argued that there may be another motive for the proposed delay.  In her December 23, 2021, Forbes op-ed, Roslyn Layton suggested that perhaps the aviation industry is seeking a handout from the government to pay for new avionics to be installed in airplanes.  She wrote, “The FAA knew about 5G for years but avoided making altimeter safety requirements for fear of upsetting its captive aviation trade associations which wanted to avoid the burden and cost of new equipment” and that “It appeared that the FAA pressure was a means to shakedown mobile operators in the hopes for a payout to upgrade obsolete altimeters sitting in aging planes and helicopters.” 

In an attempt to end this absurd fight, AT&T and Verizon have offered to use the same parameters for 5G around airports that are being used in France, which includes “extensive exclusion zones around the runways at certain airports.”  The FAA and DOT should throw in the towel and agree to this compromise.  If they continue to fight it out for a few more rounds, their weak and invalid punches will not prevail over the FCC’s valid and thorough rulemaking process.  But further delays will make it harder for the U.S. to maintain its global 5G and telecommunications leadership, which every federal agency should be promoting together.

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