from the everybody take it easy dept
We’d already noted that the FAA had been pushing to impose limits on 5G deployments in certain bands due to safety concerns. The problem: the FCC, the agency with the expertise in spectrum interference, has repeatedly stated those concerns are unfounded based on the FCC’s own research. The whole feud has been fairly bizarre, with the FAA refusing to transparently “show its math” at several points, but taking the time to leak its scary claims to select press outlets.
More specifically: the FAA (and a big chunk of the airline industry) claims that deploying 5G in the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz “C-Band” will cause interference with certain radio altimeters. But the FCC has shown that more than 40 countries have deployed 5G in this band with no evidence of harm if you implement some fairly basic safety precautions (like limiting deployments immediately around airports, and utilizing a 220 MHz guard band that will remain unused as a buffer to prevent this theoretical interference).
The FCC says there’s not actually a problem here. And the wireless industry, having spent billions of dollars on middle band spectrum, obviously wants to move forward with deployment. Especially given criticism that U.S. 5G underperforms many overseas deployments thanks to a dearth of middleband spectrum. The U.S. has deployed substantial low band 5G spectrum (great range, lower speeds), and high band millimeter wave spectrum (poor range, poor building penetration, great speeds), but unlike many nations overseas, not much middle band (both good speeds and good range).
The whole C-band mess escalated significantly this week after the CEOs of several major airlines issued a public letter effectively proclaiming their businesses would grind to a halt if wireless carriers continue to deploy 5G in these spectrum ranges:
“The aviation industry faces â€œcatastrophicâ€ disruption from the rollout of a new 5G service this week, airline leaders have warned. In a letter sent Monday to United States transportation and economic officials and obtained by NBC News, the CEOs of major carriers said that the launch could ground flights and leave “tens of thousands of Americans” stranded overseas.”
To be clear, evidence of actual harm here remains hard to come by. The FAA’s own recent memos (pdf) stated there was no “proven reports of harmful interference” with C-Band 5G deployments anywhere in the world. And wireless spectrum policy experts tell me there’s been absolutely no new studies that would justify this level of renewed freaking out by airline CEOs:
“We have seen no new evidence of anything,â€ Feld told Motherboard. â€œNo new studies. No lists of altimeter equipment with their sensitivity to potential harmful interference.”
When issues have popped up, they’ve proven relatively trivial to mitigate around the world. U.S. Wireless carriers have already agreed to limit deployment around at least 50 U.S. airports to reduce the chance of interference, and had agreed to a short delay to study harm before this week’s deployment. After some initial squabbling between the FCC and FAA, all sides seemed to have basically struck a deal on U.S. 5G deployment in these bands, including that 200Mhz buffer (double what companies like Boeing recommended) to further limit potential harm.
But the real reason for the chaos isn’t the actual interference. Some analysts suggest that, as usual, money is playing a role, and that the FAA, tightly wound up with the companies it regulates, wants to push the cost of any mitigation measures off to wireless carriers.
But Consumer groups, FCC sources, and wireless carriers all tell me the real problem is FAA procrastination, hubris and incompetence. Consumer groups and AT&T rarely agree on anything, but they both agree that the FAA didn’t respect the expertise of the FCC (who again already studied this problem before the C-band auction and found little need for concern), wasn’t willing to offer transparent evidence of their interference claims, didn’t bring any of its concerns up years ago during the investigation process, and has lagged on both certifying altimeters it deems safe to use around C-Band 5G–and setting up flight restrictions for planes that have altimeters that don’t qualify as safe under FAA guidance. AT&T was fairly blunt:
So it’s not really clear why the CEOs of major airlines have dropped a doomsday-esque letter like this into the mix this late in the game (literally a day before initial deployments), given what little safety issues that do exist have already been addressed by the FCC and others. Just like it wasn’t really clear why the FAA didn’t want to listen to the FCC when it said there wasn’t really an issue here that couldn’t be easily mitigated. Especially given this same technology has already been deployed in more than 40 countries (in some cases, like Japan, even closer to spectrum ranges used by avionics equipment) with absolutely no evidence of harm. There’s being adequately cautious out of respect for human safety, and then there’s just being difficult.