Agency Disagreement Is Holding Back U.S. Innovation

U.S. government agencies are at it again: arguing over process and turf to the detriment of American innovation. Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration said it planned to “issue warnings to pilots and airlines about potential interference with key cockpit safety systems” from 5G wireless deployments in the C-band that are slated to start coming online next month. The Federal Communications Commission, the government agency in charge of airwaves like the C-band, argues that the available evidence fails to support the notion that this 5G usage will impact aviation.

Government policy and actions should be accelerating and encouraging 5G rollout, not to mention American innovation and leadership in general. Now, unfortunately, due to the disagreement, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. announced a self-initiated 30-day pause to allow the FAA and FCC time to resolve their differences. Any delay in 5G rollouts is not a good development for American consumers and small businesses — or for our nation’s collective efforts to win the international 5G race against global competitors such as China.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that government agencies have swooped in and attempted to put the brakes on the expansion of consumer wireless services. In 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency argued that the rollout of the 24 GHz spectrum band — also used for next-generation, 5G wireless service — would interfere with current weather satellites. In 2020, the Departments of Defense and Transportation called on the FCC to reverse its 5-0 decision to allow Ligado to move forward with the L-Band for 5G service. The agencies argued that Ligado’s new network would interfere with the spectrum used by GPS satellites.

What’s behind these interagency squabbles? It may come down to control over valuable spectrum rights. Spectrum encompasses the invisible airwaves that power connective devices — everything from our cellphones to our Bluetooth devices. There is a finite amount. Different frequencies of spectrum are valuable for different things, and, as the digital economy and our appetite for all things wireless have grown, so too has the value of spectrum airwaves. The C-band that the FAA is now raising concerns about is one of the most valuable for the next-generation, 5G wireless services that will enable new businesses, products and services across America.

The U.S. government is the largest holder of spectrum rights. Over the last few decades, as cellphones and wireless devices proliferated, the FCC worked with government and industry alike to repurpose spectrum to its “highest and best use” such as more robust Wi-Fi networks or building new, 5G cellular networks.

As these new services are made available, careful consideration goes into how consumer wireless services co-exist near existing functions like aviation altimeters or NOAA satellites. Government agencies need to continue collaborating and communicating in this way, especially as technological advancements have allowed for the more efficient (and safe) use of limited spectrum. This is not the time for government agencies to be digging in.

U.S. companies have spent billions of dollars to acquire spectrum rights in order to deploy new digital services and tools to consumers and small businesses. Consumers and small businesses are benefiting from these investments, which also provide significant funds to the U.S. Treasury that can be used for programs to deploy broadband and close the digital divide.

Nearly 40 countries are currently using C-band for 5G services, with not one report of interference, according to the CTIA. These countries have not seen an impact on aviation, and American planes fly to all of these countries without issue and without FAA warnings. Why would it be any different at American airports?

U.S. government agencies need to work together quickly and end this unproductive standoff. Without certainty that the spectrum rights they are buying at a premium will in fact be respected, the private sector may decide the risk simply isn’t worth it. That would mean fewer innovations, fewer new businesses and jobs and fewer cutting-edge services. And again, it means our foreign competitors, from the European Union to China, have a step up in deploying the next generation of wireless services. Our government must support — not actively hinder — America’s private sector to maintain and strengthen our competitive and innovative edge.


Karen Kerrigan is president & CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.

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