Congress and Biden administration should be wary of FAA opposition to 5G spectrum allocation

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In early December, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a new rule restricting airplane and helicopters to use certain automated flight systems in low visibility situations due to 5G interference with altimeters, although there is little proof behind such concerns. The rule, combined with the FAA’s opposition to the allocation of mid-range spectrum for 5G communications, threatens the timely upgrade of U.S. commercial telecommunications networks.

AT&T and Verizon were to deploy 5G networks using mid-range “C-band” sections of the spectrum in December. The C-band spectrum is suitable for 5G communications because it combined both high-end and low-end wireless ranges, and could pave the way for 5G emerging technologies like augmented reality and remote precision surgery.

The most recent from the FAA delay deployment of 5G could undermine the global competitiveness of the United States in 5G networks and related technologies. Due to concerns from the FAA, AT&T and Verizon have voluntarily agreed to delay half-band spectrum deployment for one month and reduce the power of 5G base stations for six months. During this time, nearly 40 countries have allocated C-band spectrum for 5G use, and the United States risks falling behind its international competitors.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), after years of technical analysis, safety assessment, and consultation with the FAA, has auctioned and approved half-band spectrum usage for several companies in 2020. But the FAA now complaints that the deployment of 5G at mid-band will interfere with aircraft altimeters and create risks for aviation. The new FAA rule – which applies to more than 6,800 planes – will likely result in flight cancellations and unnecessary delays at major airports.

While the FAA’s security concerns may seem reasonable, policymakers should be skeptical of the agency’s claims. First, to support its claims that 5G creates flight safety risks, the FAA relies on a report of the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) that the main international regulators have largely refuted. According to experts from the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, the RTCA conclusions are “too conservative” and lack “sufficient evidence”. Even though the FAA warns of aviation safety risks associated with mid-range 5G signals, the agency has already recognized that he is not aware of any “proven reports of harmful interference”.

Second, almost 40 countries that already have To allow 5G communications in the C-band spectrum have yielded little empirical evidence of 5G mid-band interference with aeronautical systems. Denmark, Norway and Spain have used 5G systems, including in the mid-band spectrum, for three years with no known cases of interference with flights. The European Union Security Agency reports that it is “not aware of any reported event related to possible interference from 5G base stations”. Australia, China, Japan and United Kingdom allocate bands of the C-band spectrum for 5G use and have not encountered any known safety issues. Data available from flight tests conducted by the French military and the Norwegian Communications Authority to suggest that the average spectrum of the 5G band and current aviation systems can coexist without harmful interference.

In the United States, the Navy uses two radar systems that operate just below the C-band threshold, using power levels of approximately 10,000 times more than 5G stations. Likewise, the US aviation industry uses a separate intracommunications system that operates using a spectrum to that used by radio altimeters – without interfering with air navigation systems.

The FAA and several government agencies have a long history of to oppose it to innovative technologies with little basis to establish security risks. Beyond the FAA, other government departments – including the Department of Defense (DOD) – have long opposite the allocation of unused spectrum for 5G use, presumably because this would reduce DOD’s hold on technology. Even the Ministry of Education did not want to share its allocated spectrum, even if the ministry has little use for it.

Fortunately, many policymakers and players in the telecommunications market are skeptical of the FAA’s claims. More recently, six former FCC chiefs (including Democrats and Republicans) expressed concerns about the FAA’s claims to derail the FCC’s 2020 decision to allocate mid-band spectrum for 5G use.

FAA security registration is undoubtedly impressive, but in the context of the mid-band spectrum allocation for 5G networks, Democrats and Republicans should be wary of its unfounded interference claims. Congress, the Biden administration, and the FCC must ensure that opposition from the FAA does not derail U.S. leadership in the next generation of 5G-enabled technologies.

Ryan Nabil is a researcher at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC


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