The FAA Should Not Impede 5G Spectrum Use

Millions of American wireless consumers were going to receive an early holiday gift this December: a super-charged 5G wireless experience, thanks to new spectrum airwaves coming online known as the C-band.

Unfortunately, there are now attempts to delay the rollout of fast and more widespread wireless networks. And the unlikely culprit behind this unnecessary and unfortunate delay is the Federal Aviation Administration, spurred by the aviation industry.

You might reasonably ask: What’s the FAA got to do with 5G wireless spectrum? Well, some aviation equipment operates via wireless signals near the C-band. After years of notice and comment, the FAA suddenly is concerned that 5G — long planned for this position — will pose issues.

The FAA’s stated concerns are ungrounded. Nearly 40 countries have planes flying where 5G is now operating in the C-band — U.S. airlines and passengers safely among them.

Critical flaws are well-documented with the study the aviation industry relies on justify its position. The FAA has had over half a decade to raise legitimate, substantiated concerns.

We’re here to say that the Federal Communications Commission is the expert agency with primary jurisdiction over commercial spectrum — and the FCC found, after years of careful analysis, that 5G can operate in the C-band without harmful interference to aviation equipment.

We believe the FCC’s decision should stand. Wireless providers, in a response to the FAA’s concerns, recently outlined voluntary precautionary mitigation measures they are taking. They address specific scenarios where altimeters are at their most useful for safe flight operations, while preserving the value of the C-band for 5G operations. Providers are within their rights to begin turning on C-band powered 5G networks next month. With these additional reasonable mitigation measures in place, we would fully expect them to do just that.

Both of us have had the honor of serving as FCC commissioners overseeing spectrum, including the C-band. We know the FCC painstakingly studied this issue. The FCC conducted an exhaustive examination with input from aviation stakeholders and spectrum experts as well as consultation with other federal agencies including the FAA.

In response to that input, the FCC adopted a significant guard band to protect users in other bands like the aviation interests, enacted power and emission limits on 5G use in the C-band and encouraged the creation of a multi-stakeholder group.

After that extensive process, the FCC found that 5G can operate safely in the C-band — a finding reinforced by real-world deployments and testing across the globe.

From 2015 through the FCC’s 2020 decision, the FAA did not raise any justifiable and scientifically proven concerns with 5G operations in the C-band. It also did not make any public statements or issue warnings as other countries launched 5G operations in the C-band with American planes flying into them. Instead, the FAA waited until earlier this month, a few weeks before wireless providers were scheduled to launch service, to publicly request — for the first time — any information about aviation equipment and 5G.

We are witnessing what Bloomberg called “years of disarray among federal agencies” on U.S. commercial spectrum policies.

From a larger perspective, that’s why it’s been heartening to hear Biden administration officials, from Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, recognize the importance of a fully coordinated, federal government spectrum user effort — and putting a stop to messy and unnecessary interagency disputes, especially after the FCC completed an auction.

Getting federal agencies’ spectrum processes in order couldn’t come at a better time because the stakes were never higher. It was good to see the FAA issue a statement earlier this month that accompanied two airworthiness directives saying, it “believes the expansion of 5G and aviation will safely co-exist.”

We agree because this issue needs to be resolved quickly. What is concerning, however, is that a group representing aviation interests is raising the specter of flight disruptions, which, in our view, is not borne out by the facts.

Delays in activating this key mid-band spectrum jeopardize America’s competitiveness and risk sending our global 5G leadership into a tailspin. China has already made over six times more mid-band spectrum available than the United States. We cannot afford more mid-band headwinds like those the FAA needlessly created.

Put simply, the FAA is wrong to attempt to re-litigate the FCC’s decision now.

Instead, the administration has the opportunity to reject the notion that we must choose between safe skies and 5G. Thanks to sound and sober engineering by the expert agency on commercial spectrum, we can — and do — have both.


Jonathan Adelstein is the CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association and a former Democratic FCC commissioner. Mike O’Rielly is a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute and a former Republican FCC commissioner.

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