Furious comments from airline pilots, crews, and executives, milquetoast assurances from the Federal Aviation Administration, and intervention from the White House held up 5G deployment near certain airports last week. Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Air India, and Emirates briefly suspended some U.S. flights when AT&T and Verizon finally rolled out the new network. In a CNN interview, Tim Clark, the longtime, highly regarded president of Emirates, slammed the utterly irresponsible and delinquent situation as the biggest screwup Ive seen in my career.
The 5G rollout by the two wireless carriers should have been seamless and invisible. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the airlines, and AT&T and Verizon have sparred for years over unresolved technology issues. The dispute forced President Biden to call a truce, bandage up the combatants, insist on a short-term fix, and send them out of earshot to clean up the mess and coordinate the technology solutionswhich existthat have eluded them until now. But the extent of the communications breakdown had not been recognized until it exploded into public view in early January.
When the FCC backs the powerful wireless carriers and goes up against the safety concerns of the FAA and the equally powerful aviation sector, the real question is who resolves the dispute. The answer may surprise you: Its a little-known Commerce Department agency deep within the bowels of the administrative state, created to deal with precisely these kinds of issues, which has been so racked by internal intrigue and the wider disdain for government that the telecommunications experts could not do their jobs.
There are hundreds of thousands of cell sites and more than 2,000 public airports and 15,000 private airports. For the moment, the FAA has implemented 5G buffer zones around 50 of the countrys busiest airports that have cell towers near runways, among them Chicagos OHare, Los Angeles International, and the three metro New York airports. Outside those locations, airports where 5G is being deployed may experience delays and cancellations to avoid safety problems.
When the FCC backs the powerful wireless carriers and goes up against the safety concerns of the FAA and the equally powerful aviation sector, the real question is who resolves the dispute.
Possible 5G interference with radar altimeters, the modern version of the nearly century-old instrument that pilots use to gauge altitude, particularly in poor weather conditions, is a well-known aviation concern. An October 2020 report on 5G by RTCA, a private aviation technology research group, found a major risk that 5G telecommunications systems in the 3.73.98 GHz band will cause harmful interference to radar altimeters on all types of civil aircraft This risk is widespread and has the potential for broad impacts to aviation operations in the United States, including the possibility of catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of appropriate mitigations.
Some domestic cargo flights were already en route when 5G was deployed on Wednesday, and were diverted to the nearest airport. Medevac helicopters may also be affected; those operations received a partial exemption to operate as long as they use searchlights or have data about conditions from staff on the ground. According to Defense News, the Pentagon plans to study how 5G will affect its aircraft. (Whether the Defense Department directed the wireless carriers to limit the 5G rollout near military facilities is unknown.)
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The seeds of the 5G meltdown can be traced back to roughly 2018, when the FCC and the FAA were still discussing how best to deploy the next-generation upgrades to the countrys wireless networks. AT&T and Verizon acquired frequencies on the radio spectrum where the companies could deploy 5G. The C-band frequency allocation is immediately next to the spectrum allocation for radar altimeters. There is concern that this proximity has the potential to create interference. In an analog world, the experience is similar to driving from an area where a weak radio station signal competes with a station with a more powerful signal. On an aircraft, 5G interference with a radar altimeter could compromise a pilots ability to safely take off or land in rain, snow, or other adverse weather.
Since AT&T and Verizon have invested nearly $100 billion to acquire the C-band for 5G, the spectrum dispute puts them at a competitive disadvantage and fueled their insistence on getting the rollout going. T-Mobile, the only other major wireless carrier in America, has frequencies situated elsewhere on the spectrum, so the company did not experience these issues and already offers 5G.
The FCC viewed the airlines as essentially freeloading near the frequencies that had been acquired by AT&T and Verizon, arguing that the aviation sector had plenty of time to deal with the issue. Unions like the Air Line Pilots Association shot back that the FCC and the wireless carriers have ignored their valid safety concerns. The FAA and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took the side of the aviation industry, warning of widespread and unacceptable disruption.
Why did this situation escalate? Spectrum disputes are typically resolved by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), situated in the Department of Commerce. But instability convulsed the agency during the Trump years. The NTIA burned through assistant secretaries charged with 5G issues. One of them, David Redl, resigned suddenly after tiffs with other Trump denizens at Commerce, after serving for only 18 months.
Having top officials coming and going hampered the agencys role as the decider in mediating the 5G implementation dispute. President Bidens nominee to run NTIA, longtime Google lobbyist and former Commerce official Alan Davidson, was only confirmed on January 11, giving him barely a week on the job before the 5G dispute boiled over. Davidson is the first confirmed head of NTIA since mid-2019, a testament to the leadership vacuum.
A damning July 2021 GAO report on spectrum interference issues involving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA found that the FCC and NTIA had no clear processes for resolving matters when agencies cant agree on issues. The lack of a clear national spectrum policy leads to agency finger-pointing.
Its possible to write some rules that let signals go from airplanes to the ground and back as well as to have signals going to and from the towers, says Reed Hundt, a former FCC chairman who served during the first Clinton administration. Everybody knows scientifically this is possible. For some reason out of the blue, the FAA decides, Well, lets forget about the fact that this is supposed to be resolved by the NTIAand in fact, everybody thought it was resolvedLets just hit the panic button.
For his part, Emirates president Clark blasted the lapse. Somebody should have told [the U.S. government] at the timethat the risks and the dangers they placed in certain frequency uses around field, airfields, metropolitan fields that should have been done at the time. Given the uncertainties about 5G interference, it is unclear why the wireless carriers are not more concerned about potential liabilities if safety incidents do occur.
Mitigation strategies, such as pointing cell tower antennas in different directions and reducing power near airports from 5G to 4G, are preferable to hard landings or catastrophic crashes.
American air carriers may have to invest big money in aircraft technology upgrades to get past 5G interference, something theyre loath to do. Already experiencing weather-relatedand omicron-relatedcancellations, the airlines can now add 5G to the expanding list of challenges producing even greater waves of frustration among the traveling public. However, the FAA has put the onus on air travelers and airline call centers to suss out a complex problem. Their jaw-dropping guidance? Passengers should check with their airlines if weather is forecast at a destination where 5G interference is possible, advice that transfers responsibility for understanding these ramifications from the agency to airline passengers. (In areas that often experience fog and rainy conditions, some passengers may have to endure more delays and cancellations.)
FAA and FCC officials could redeem themselves if they use the next six months of data collection to come up with new regulations and clear guidance for the aviation sector. Mitigation strategies, such as pointing cell tower antennas in different directions and reducing power near airports from 5G to 4G, are preferable to hard landings or catastrophic crashes. But some agency would have to take the leadership position to oversee and enforce any new procedures.
Its part of the pattern of the administrative agencies in general, acting in an uncoordinated, unscientific, and frequently incompetent way, says Hundt. It would be a darn good thing for this administration, which doesnt need more things to do, to actually decide what are we going to do about the administrative state? Hundt continues, You have to have agencies say, OK, heres the answer. Because you cant just have it be, Oh, itll just happen somehow. Youre going to have airplane accidents, or cell towers that arent going to work.