5G vs. Air Safety: The FAA’s False Choice

This January, America’s wireless providers will begin using a set of radio waves known as C-Band spectrum to expand 5G service to communities large and small across America. This exciting development is the foundation for innovations such as driverless cars and remote health care that will transform the way we live and work.

But the truth is, we’re playing catch-up. C-Band spectrum is already the backbone of 5G networks around the world because it offers the unique ability to provide high speeds over a wide coverage area, making sure no one gets left out of the new 5G Economy. Nearly 40 countries are already using this spectrum.

Recently, the aviation industry and the Federal Aviation Administration have suggested we should delay launching 5G in the C-Band. A delay will cause real harm. Pushing back deployment one year would subtract $50 billion in economic growth, just as our nation recovers and rebuilds from the pandemic. It would leave us further behind the dozens of other countries already using this spectrum, harming our country’s global competitiveness. And it would severely limit our ability to ensure all Americans have access to high-speed mobile broadband just as our nation prepares to invest billions to build broadband infrastructure.

Fortunately, there appears to be no valid scientific or engineering basis to justify a delay, and there is overwhelming evidence to support rapid deployment. 5G operates safely in the C-Band without causing harmful interference to air traffic. How do we know?

It turns out that countries have studied using this spectrum in wireless networks for more than 17 years. Here in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission – the independent agency responsible for weighing the evidence and making these decisions – studied this issue extensively over the past four years. And it did so with input from the aviation industry. The conclusion? “We continue to have no reason to believe that 5G operations in the C-Band will cause harmful interference,” according to an FCC spokesperson.

Within the nearly 40 countries operating 5G in the C-Band today, there is not a single report of 5G causing harmful interference with air traffic of any kind. The FAA said earlier this month that “there have not yet been proven reports of harmful interference due to wireless broadband operations internationally.”

In some of these countries, 5G signals operate in spectrum adjacent to aviation equipment. U.S. airlines fly in and out of these countries every day. If interference were possible, we would have seen it long before now. Nevertheless we’ve added a layer of protection in the United States, called a guard band, that is hundreds of times greater than the separation that exists between wireless and other critical spectrum users.

Despite this evidence, the FAA and the aviation industry appear to be looking to halt 5G deployment in the United States altogether, due in part to a report that we consider to be riddled with bad science and bad engineering.

This effort to stop 5G deployment is an extraordinary demand that runs counter to the science as well as the collaborative interagency process that has been the bedrock of sound spectrum policy for many, many years.

The FCC and Department of Commerce are our nation’s spectrum regulators and govern the use of spectrum from the military, government and commercial sectors. These agencies have so far found no harmful interference from 5G services here, and that determination is conclusively borne out by what we see around the globe.

By trying to pit aviation interests against 5G progress, the FAA is unfortunately forcing a false choice the United States need not make. We can — and will — have both safe flights and robust and reliable wireless.  Earlier this month, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told Congress that “we will figure this out so that 5G and aviation safety can coexist.” This is readily attainable and existing FCC rules ensure just that outcome. Starting in January, we will have world-leading wireless and safe flights.  Let’s get to work.


Meredith Attwell Baker is the president and chief executive officer of CTIA, an association of wireless carriers and technology firms, and served as an FCC commissioner from 2009 until 2011.

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