The Federal Communications Commission said the three largest U.S. wireless companies won $78 billion in bids in the government’s auction of a band of C-Band spectrum critical to next-generation 5G networks. Verizon Communications successfully bid $45.4 billion for 3,511 licenses, while AT&T won with $23.4 billion for 1,621 licenses and T-Mobile won with $9.3 billion for 142. In total, the FCC said there were $81.2 billion in winning bids.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cried foul, arguing that signals from 5G antennas near airports posed a threat to radar altimeters guiding planes during landings, especially in bad weather. Last October, The Wall Street Journal reported that “air-safety regulators tussle with telecom regulators over safety concerns ahead of expansion of new wireless technology”:
U.S. air-safety regulators are preparing to issue warnings to pilots and airlines about potential interference with key cockpit safety systems by a new 5G wireless service slated to go live as soon as early December, according to current and former government and aviation industry officials briefed on the matter. The Federal Aviation Administration has been drafting a special bulletin and accompanying mandates that would say certain automated features used by pilots to help fly and land planes could be affected by wireless towers on the ground transmitting the new 5G signals, these officials said. The FAA actions aren’t expected to be directed at consumers’ use of cell phones.
To most observers, the 5G fight probably looks like another typical bureaucratic he-said/she-said. But the answer is more complex.
FCC officials and its defenders point to the smooth introduction of 5G service in Europe, where no concerns about interference with aircraft instruments have been raised. The FAA and airlines point to the agency’s legal mandate to insist on the highest standards of safety, which requires it to assess each type of altimeter to determine how susceptible it is to interference. So far, that assessment has cleared about 90% of airliners to operate into airports where 5G is being turned on, but most of the smaller regional jets, with older altimeters, have not been cleared. Moreover, FAA approval of the 90% applies only to the initial six-month period of lower-power 5G service agreed to at the last minute by AT&T and Verizon.
Defenders of the FCC fail to explain that in Europe, several years in advance of 5G going live, air-safety regulators worked closely with telecommunication regulators to define where it would be safe to locate 5G towers near airports, limit the power output of those towers, and tilt their signals away from airport runways. That’s why there have been none of the problems currently plaguing U.S. aviation.
Why didn’t that kind of cooperation happen in the United States?
The FAA commissioned two aviation-related studies on the 5G issue, one by the Aerospace Vehicle Systems Institute (AVSI) and the other by RTCA, a long-standing telecommunications advisory body to FAA. Both studies raised concerns, and in December 2020 (shortly before the spectrum auction was to begin), FAA asked the official body that deals with spectrum conflicts (NTIA), to delay the auction. Without stating any reason, NTIA failed to notify the FCC, and the auction went forward, raising $81 billion for the offered spectrum.
Why did NTIA sit on its hands? The most likely reason seems to be the Trump administration wanted US companies to ‘beat’ the Chinese in this next generation of wireless technology and didn’t want anything to delay America’s speedy implementation of 5G. NTIA is part of the Department of Commerce, and then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was the administration’s biggest booster of this ‘beat the Chinese on 5G’ imperative. Ross was backed up by others in the White House, including 5G cheerleader Larry Kudlow.
But fault also lies with the FAA. With the AVSI and RTCA reports in hand, the FAA could have gone public with information about the alleged air safety conflicts in 2020, recruiting then-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and the aviation trade associations to raise the safety concerns that were only made public a full year later.
And as it turned out, until last month, FAA and the aviation community did not even have details of the exact locations of 5G towers near airports, their power outputs, or other details needed to actually assess the extent of possible interference with airplanes’ radar altimeters (and all the other on-board equipment that use that altitude information). AT&T and Verizon considered that information to be proprietary.
Nothing like that occurred in Europe or the United Kingdom, however, as full cooperation between aviation safety regulators and telecommunications regulators enabled 5G towers to be placed with adequate distance from runways and operating at power levels that would not interfere with aircraft instruments.
In the US, the 5G-related bureaucratic failures by FCC and FAA created potential safety risks and helped increase tension and conflict between major telecommunications companies and airlines, making this a rare case where I wish the United States were more like Europe.