The Wall Street Journal just reported on forthcoming Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advisory that 5G wireless transmission in C-band spectrum could potentially interfere with automated features in cockpit safety systems. Safety is a key concern in aviation, and the evolution of spectrum-based wireless communications technologies continues to improve it. One could take the FAA’s advisory seriously if it didn’t fit a demonstrated pattern of opposing new wireless technologies. As we’ve seen before, here’s the catch as reported:
The FAA’s planned warnings are part of a long-running dispute between the aviation and telecom industries and their regulators. There have been disagreements over the seriousness of potential safety risks, data sharing and the quality of research, fueling a disconnect between efforts to protect aircraft and expand the latest wireless networks… The FAA-FCC clash is just the latest in a series of disputes between U.S. government agencies…”
In other words, entrenched industries using federal spectrum and their regulators want to delay and deter new technologies of commercial spectrum licensed by the FCC. The FAA could unscrupulously conflate safety with reality to get its way, feigning a Y2K-style crisis with each subsequent generation (“G”) of mobile wireless technology.
The FAA is just the latest example in a long line of federal agencies unhappy about spectrum deployments for 5G and other new wireless technologies. The Commerce Department, National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have challenged 5G in the 24 GHz band saying wireless systems challenges their obsolete satellites. For decades, the Department of Education which did nothing in the 2.5 GHz band, a valuable piece of spectrum dedicated for Education Broadband Services, bristled when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to modernize the rules for its use. Then there is America’s single largest spectrum holder, the Department of Defense (DoD), which if it had its druthers, would likely end all commercial spectrum auctions because it perceives a loss of control. DoD’s ongoing dispute against the FCC and wireless operator Ligado has become legendary for its exaggeration. An official DoD microsite claims Ligado’s low power US only network yet to be deployed could have “global [emphasis added] ramifications to U.S. national security, commercial and civil sectors, the economy, and those who rely on this service in their everyday lives.” In practical terms, the Pentagon’s hyperbole translate to military GPS receivers so fragile that they could be brought down by a wireless transmission at the power level of a light bulb.
The C-Band is critical to U.S. 5G leadership
The mobile wireless economy generates over $1 trillion annually to US gross domestic product and some 5 million direct jobs and another 5 million indirectly. Robust wireless ecosystems have emerge from successive generations of cellular network technologies, bringing powering innovations like the iPhone, Uber, and WhatsApp. The US took a global leadership position with 4G, and policymakers want this to continue with 5G and beyond through technologies requiring almost zero latency like autonomous vehicles, automated manufacturing, and telemedicine.
Central to America’s global leadership in 5G is deployment of C-band spectrum, a set of frequencies between 4 -8 GHz called the Goldilocks band because of its capability to send large amounts of data over long distances. With speeds that top 100 Mbps, 5G can compete directly with wireline technologies to help close the digital divide and deliver broadband and video to homes and offices. These properties make it the cost-effective solution for high speed broadband in rural areas. C-band frequencies are in high demand. Last year’s auction of scant 280 MHz of C-band spectrum, repurposing outdated satellite technologies for newer, more efficient, and more valuable mobile applications, earned a record $94 billion.
America’s 5G competitors China, Japan, and South Korea set aside more than 2-3 times as much C-band spectrum for 5G. Nevertheless, the US has compensated for this deficit and has taken a leadership role in 5G because mobile operators spend tens of billions annually to deploy state of the art infrastructure and systems, and the FCC has streamlined a fast-track deployment policy. Moreover, the FCC has been working with the FAA for decades to ensure smooth rollout for mobile wireless services. In fact the C-band rules have been in place for more than a year with the FAA being engaged along the way. That the FAA raises the flag now, at the 11th hour, just as 5G goes live in the C-band network is desperate and suspicious. In fact 5G has been operating since 2019 with no problems to aviation. More than 100 5G networks are in progress across 40 countries in the C-band and related bands.
America’s aviation industry boasts an impressive safety record. In the past 20 years, commercial aviation fatalities in the U.S. have decreased by 95 percent as measured by fatalities per 100 million passengers. The FAA attributes this success largely to new aircraft and real world safety practices developed in partnership between regulators, manufacturers, operators, and workers. That the FAA issues a nebulous 5G warning timed for political impact is a discredit to its legitimate safety efforts. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson will appear before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, November 3. He will likely be challenged about this specious assertion. Americans expect to enjoy the world’s top mobile wireless networks and safe flying experiences. There is no reason why they can’t have both these things. Forbes