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Aviation Industry, Wireless Providers Clash Over 5G Cellular Expansion

November 12, 2021 by Dan McCue
(Photo by Alex Rybin via Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — Days before President Joe Biden is set to sign the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law, a coalition of aviation entities is seeking to put the brakes on a key element of the package —  the expansion of 5G technologies — until the safety of the nation’s airspace and flying public can be ensured.

But that request has CTIA, the leading trade association for the wireless communications industry, crying foul, and both sides sending lengthy letters to the White House explaining their positions.

The infrastructure bill, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, includes about $65 billion in federal funding allocated toward expanding broadband access and 5G connectivity nationwide.

This includes deploying 5G technologies to the C-band, a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum allotted to satellite transmissions in the 4GHz to 8GHz frequency range. 

In 2020, well in advance of the bipartisan deal, the Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules to auction and quickly make available 280 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for flexible use, including 5G.

The agency said at the time that “making this critical spectrum available represents another important step to closing the digital divide, especially in rural areas, and secures U.S. leadership in 5G.”

In February of this year, the commission announced the winners of the auction of some 5,684 spectrum licenses.

All told, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and 18 other bidders bid more that $81 billion on the chance to rev-up their 5G networks.

“It is essential to America’s economic recovery that we deliver on the promise of next generation wireless services for everyone, everywhere,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel when the auction results were announced. 

“This auction reflects a shift in our nation’s approach to 5G toward mid-band spectrum that can support fast, reliable, and ubiquitous service that is competitive with our global peers. Now we have to work fast to put this spectrum to use in service of the American people,” Rosenworcel said.

Beginning Jan. 5, cellular carriers in 46 U.S. markets are expected to begin repurposing portions of the C-band frequency spectrum near the frequency band used by airlines, flight controllers and other safety-critical entities in the aviation industry.

But in a letter to the White House National Economic Council, a coalition led by the Aerospace Industries Association asks the government to put off the implementation of the FCC plan indefinitely due to the fact the frequencies soon to be allocated to 5G  may encroach on frequencies used by aircraft altimeters, inspiring safety concerns.

A radar altimeter measures the altitude above the terrain presently beneath an aircraft or spacecraft by timing how long it takes a beam of radio waves to travel to ground, reflect, and return to the craft. 

The technology is used in every commercial aircraft and helicopter, and most privately-owned aircraft as well.

“We believe it is incumbent on the National Economic Council to work with the FCC and FAA to convene a joint industry working group and continue to delay the deployment of 5G technologies in this band until the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System is ensured. The goal of this working group would be to reach acceptable mitigations,” the coalition wrote. 

“Aviation will not be able to maintain the current level of public safety and economic activity without support from the Biden-Harris administration and the implementation of mitigations by the cellular industry,” it warns.

The coalition represents the world’s leading aerospace manufacturers, airlines, pilots, and operators, and it notes in its letter that the aviation industry “supports millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in economic activity within the United States.” 

The letter comes on the heels of the FAA issuing a bulletin alerting manufacturers, operators, and pilots that action may be needed to address the potential interference caused by 5G systems. 

Joining the Aerospace Industries Association in signing the letter were representatives of manufacturing companies including Boeing, Airbus and Honeywell International; employee organizations like Air Line Pilots Association, and several broader industry-related groups like the Airborne Public Safety Association, the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, Airlines for America, the Cargo Airline Association, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and the National Air Carrier Association.

On Thursday, CTIA responded to these claims.

“After 17 years of global study, the U.S. government found that 5G can coexist safely with flights in the U.S.” said Meredith Attwell Baker, the organization’s president and CEO. “Today, there are already nearly 40 countries safely operating 5G with no harmful interference to air traffic. There is no scientific or engineering basis for further delay, and we cannot afford to fall behind as countries continue to launch and expand 5G operations in the C-band.” 

She added: “The wireless industry intends to launch this service in the U.S. next January.”

The organization also sent its own letter to the Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, calling on the administration to reject calls to delay C-Band 5G services.

“Aviation safety is critically important. It is also not at risk due to C-Band 5G operations because there is no credible engineering evidence or real-world interference incidents to warrant delay in 5G deployment,” the CTIA letter said.

“The sole basis for the aviation community’s advocacy is an aviation industry association report released late last year asserting interference risks to aviation altimeters, but a review of the test parameters shows significant flaws and inconsistencies and raises serious questions about the report’s veracity. If those test conditions were accurate, altimeters in the United States would be functioning improperly today, even in the absence of 5G deployments,” the wireless group contends.

While the signers of the aviation industry letter warn that their industry “will not be able to maintain the current level of public safety and economic activity” unless closer scrutiny is given to the 5G expansion on the C-band, CTIA maintains “dozens of countries have launched 5G in the C-Band without interference, including at similar frequencies and power levels, and in some instances in frequencies that are closer to aviation operations than C-Band 5G spectrum in the U.S.”

The aviation industry letter also says that if its concerns are left unresolved, it will force the FAA to take further actions that “will have enormous economic impacts that the country cannot face, resulting in needless supply chain delays and travel and shipping cancellations.”

“While we understand and support the importance of making spectrum available to enable next generation commercial wireless communications, we need the administration and FCC to help aviation and telecommunication industries reach acceptable mitigations,” the letter writers continued, promising that they are committed to “working diligently” to develop new standards that will benefit all concerned.

CTIA was unmoved.

“Second-guessing the FCC’s determination here after so much investment has already been made and risking our international standing as a leader on 5G when no actual interference has been shown is shortsighted,” its letter said. “Moreover, further delay imposed on an industry that paid billions of dollars for access to the spectrum—including additional funds directed at achieving early access—creates uncertainty around future auctions, and disincentivizes companies from participating going forward, which could significantly impact the nation’s ability to pay for much-needed federal initiatives, like the recently-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“The United States needs both innovative 5G wireless services and safe aviation. Other nations have proven that these are mutually compatible goals in the C-band,” the trade group said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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