Who runs spectrum policy in the US? We used to say it was the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But as wireless carriers buckle under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) complaints about new C-Band networks once again, it’s clear the answer is really “anyone but.”
Historically, the FCC has had the final word on who gets which slices of the nation’s airwaves. There’s big money behind this, too, with spectrum auctions raking in tens of billions of dollars for the US Treasury.
But all that’s been upended by the FAA putting its foot down to stop AT&T and Verizon from launching their new C-Band 5G networks. Verizon was scheduled to have a big event at 1 p.m. today, but the carriers agreed to kick the can down the road another two weeks.
To recap the whole mess: the new C-Band 5G airwaves supposedly being turned on this month are 400MHz away from the airwaves used by airplane radio altimeters, but the FAA and airlines say that still isn’t far enough. The FCC rejected the FAA’s complaints a year ago and auctioned the airwaves off for more than $80 billion, but the FAA and airlines ran a last-minute campaign to stop the network launches. The Department of Transportation sided with the FAA, while the FCC stayed mum at the last minute and declined to publicly defend its own position. Only a single, Republican commissioner stood up for the FCC’s position.
The most recent two-week delay adds to a previous four-week delay, and there’s no guarantee the delays won’t extend further. AT&T and Verizon had offered the air industry mitigations similar to what’s currently being used in France, but that proposal was not accepted without a further delay. (Around 40 countries currently use the C-Band spectrum in question for 5G. None of them have air safety problems.)
This whole situation throws future spectrum auctions into question. If Verizon and AT&T bought C-Band for a certain price assuming certain coverage and power levels, and then they have to greatly reduce their coverage or power levels, it wouldn’t be surprising if they ask for money back from the government.
And beyond that, the FCC’s entire authority to auction and assign spectrum is now in question. Simply put, it’s not clear who’s in charge.
This isn’t just about a few weeks and C-Band. Every new frequency has incumbent users, or neighbors, that complain about new uses, often with a federal agency on their side.
Most notably, the new 6GHz Wi-Fi band is right next to a 5.9GHz band reserved by the Department of Transportation for vehicle-to-vehicle communications. The DOT may run a similar playbook to the C-Band here, deeming 5.9GHz as “the safety band.” It’s already preparing to claim that the new system would have unacceptable out-of-band emissions.
We’ve reported before on how the 24GHz millimeter-wave auction created complaints from NOAA that it may interfere with weather forecasting.
The new 3.45-3.55GHz frequency band has a lot of overlapping military use, and while the FCC has established a plan for carriers to share that band with the military, the DoD may now see this moment as one to take advantage of the FCC’s weakness.
Wireless data usage is still on its way up. Verizon’s 4G and “nationwide 5G” networks are suffering from some congestion, our tests show, and existing Wi-Fi bands are getting crowded with technologies that aren’t up to growing demand for multiple high-quality streaming connections around the house.
Without a single arbiter of who gets which airwaves, it’ll be difficult for innovation to continue. This week’s decision speaks to a slower, and more uncertain, future for wireless tech amongst endless federal fiefdom fights. PCMag