Ex-FCC Chairs Voice Concerns Over FAA Stance On 5G

December 14, 2021 by Dan McCue
Ex-FCC Chairs Voice Concerns Over FAA Stance On 5G
Former FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn.

WASHINGTON — Six former chairs of the Federal Communications Commission accused aviation regulators of needlessly trying to derail new 5G mobile services slated to start next month.

As previously reported by The Well News, a roiling dispute has been going on for more than a year between aviation entities and the wireless communication industry over the planned expansion of 5G to the so-called C-band, a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum allotted to satellite transmissions in the 4GHz to 8GHz frequency range. 

In 2020, the FCC 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.

Last month, a coalition led by the Aerospace Industries Association asked the White House to put off the implementation of the FCC plan – now slated to go into effect on Jan. 5 – over concerns the new services may encroach on frequencies used by aircraft altimeters, creating a safety hazard.

In response the CTIA, the leading trade association for the wireless communications industry, sent its own letter to the White House addressing those concerns.

“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.” 

“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.

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration appeared to try to straddle both positions.

On the one hand, it said it believes “the expansion of 5G and aviation will safely co-exist” and noted that it has been “working closely with the Federal Communications Commission and wireless companies, and has made progress toward safely implementing the 5G expansion.”

At the same time, it issued two airworthiness directives to “provide a framework and to gather more information to avoid potential effects on aviation safety equipment.” 

One directive is a warning to pilots of transport and commuter aircraft; the other, to helicopter pilots. In both cases, the words of caution are the same:

“This [airworthiness directive] was prompted by a determination that radio altimeters cannot be relied upon to perform their intended function if they experience interference from wireless broadband operations in the 3.7-3.98 GHz frequency band (5G C-Band),” the FAA said. “These prohibitions could prevent flights and could also result in flight diversions. “

Now, in a letter to FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel and Evelyn Remaley, acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the six former FCC chairs say that they are “concerned about the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent efforts to revisit the FCC’s 2020 decision.” 

The signers – Ajit Pai, Tom Wheeler, Mignon Clyburn, Julius Genachowski, Michael Copps and Michael Powell, a group that includes both Republicans and Democrats – note that the FCC has long worked collaboratively on spectrum management with NTIA. 

“The process 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,” they wrote.

“It also provides an opportunity for federal government stakeholders to raise — and defend with reliable data — their concerns about interference from transitioning spectrum to new uses.”

Among other things, the signers said, the decision-making approach of the agency provides wireless companies and other license holders with the confidence necessary to invest in the networks that will “ensure the U.S. remains the technology leader of the world.”

“In this case the FAA position threatens to derail the reasoned conclusions reached by the FCC after years of technical analysis and study,” they added.

The FAA said in a statement emailed to The Well News that its safety concerns are spelled out in its airworthiness directives and Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin.

“We continue to work with federal agencies and the wireless companies so 5G C-band and aviation can safely coexist,” an agency spokesperson said.

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

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