I interviewed two spectrum regulatory subject matter experts to gain some industry perspective on the recent “5G food fight” between the FCC, FAA, ALPA, CTIA, Boeing, Airbus, AT&T and Verizon.
Robin Cohen, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Enterprise Wireless Alliance and Alan Tilles, has represented clients in all areas of technology for over 35 years, a “go-to spectrum guy.”
The last-minute histrionics over the 5G roll-out, in my view, were just another example of dysfunction between two Federal Agencies having a huge impact on wireless users and aviation customers. Our SME’s took a more positive viewpoint, focusing on the positive aspects of the ultimate resolution agreement and it’s modest impact.
Robin J. Cohen, President/CEO, Enterprise Wireless Alliance -
“Since virtually all Americans fly AND rely on wireless connectivity, I applaud the parties in achieving what appears to be a reasonable accommodation. Mitigating even the possibility of interference at priority airports is the right answer, particularly during a time of unprecedented disruption of air traffic.”
Alan S. Tilles, Esq., The Law Offices of Alan Tilles
“It is important to note that potential interference presently being discussed is in a new band (the C Band). It doesn’t stop or impede the 5G roll out from happening, only inhibits it (for Verizon and AT&T only, not T-Mobile or Dish) in certain areas around airports.”
But how did we get here? Why was this even necessary? Take a look at the last-minute jousting that caused a resolution and agreement to be even necessary in the first place.
November 18, 2021 - Aviation industry to the FCC: “Air cargo and commercial air travel will likely cease at night and in any weather where the pilot cannot see the runway” if the interference issue isn’t addressed.”
December 7, 2021- FAA airworthiness directive: “Unsafe conditions” require action before the January 5 5G implementation “because radio altimeter anomalies that are undetected by the aircraft automation or pilot, particularly close to the ground…could lead to loss of continued safe flight and landing.”
December 20, 2021 - Airbus and Boeing CEOs to US Secretary of Transportation: “The US aviation industry’s shared concerns over 5G implementation in the United States”. Supported postponing AT&T and Verizon's deployment of C-Band spectrum 5G wireless.
December 30, 2021 – Airlines for America to FCC: Petitioned to halt deployment of 5G wireless service around many airports, warning thousands of flights could be disrupted. They warned they will "seek judicial or other relief" to avoid "immediate and unacceptable safety risks."
January 2, 2022 – Wireless CEOs to US Secretary of Transportation - After working for years to launch their 5G networks, the Department of Transportation is asking for more time, just days before the scheduled launch.
“In addition to the tens of billions of dollars we paid to the U.S. Government for the spectrum and the additional billions of dollars we paid to the satellite companies to enable the December 2021 availability of the spectrum,” the CEOs wrote, “we have paid billions of dollars more to purchase the necessary equipment and lease space on towers. Thousands of our employees have worked non-stop for months to prepare our networks to utilize this spectrum.”
So… what happened?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced highly disruptive airline restrictions just as AT&T and Verizon began their 5G roll out after the FCC spent more than 10 years testing 5G interference. The agency had expressed concerns that the new 5G service uses signals that clash with equipment pilots use to land in poor weather. Officials have said they could restrict the use of that equipment, known as radio altimeters, which could force airlines to ground or reroute flights under some conditions.
And then, of course, a grand compromise was reached!
According to the NY Times article “5G cellular service will go forward as U.S. reaches deal with carriers, Federal aviation officials have agreed not to ask for further delays to Verizon and AT&T’s new 5G cellular service, clearing the way for the companies to start their service while avoiding a major clash with regulators who said it could endanger flights.
In addition to delaying the start of their service by two weeks, the carriers will temporarily put in place measures designed to address the government’s safety concerns about the technology, particularly around certain airports.
Reaction to the compromised was mixed.
Pilots welcomed this compromise. Airline Pilots Association Joe DePete told Yahoo Finance in a video chat that pilots have been concerned about 5G since 2018. DePete applauded the latest agreement, but said whatever solution is agreed on needs to be approved by pilots.
Airlines for America also welcomed the resolution in a statement from President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio.
“We appreciate the leadership of Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Dickson and National Economic Council (NEC) Director Deese in reaching the agreement with AT&T and Verizon to delay their planned 5G C-band deployment around certain airports for two weeks and to commit to the proposed mitigations.
Safety is and always will be the top priority of U.S. airlines. We will continue to work with all stakeholders to help ensure that new 5G service can coexist with aviation safely.”
There was some negative reaction to this action by the FAA. “The last-minute intervention of the FAA in the 5G C-band deployment is more a story of federal interagency dysfunction than actual danger to airline altimeters,” according to Ike Brannon, fellow of the Jack Kemp Foundation and former senior economist for the United States Treasury and U.S. Congress, in a Forbes article.
“It was the FCC’s well-regarded engineering staff that looked at the possible ramifications of the new technology, and it could detect no reason to believe that it would interfere with altimeters. And it is the FCC, not the FAA, that has jurisdiction over this,” Brannon wrote. “The FAA’s last-minute action is a manifestation of a broader regulatory problem in that agencies have trouble taking into account the costs or benefits of an action that may go beyond their own narrower jurisdiction.”
Brannon does not appear to have confidence in the FAA engineers, either. He added derisively that the FAA’s own engineering program — the Nextgen Air Transportation System, intended to improve navigation and increase capacity at U.S. airports — is behind schedule and over budget.
5G refers to the “fifth generation of cellular technology”, and will offer much more than faster phones. It will improve smartphone responsiveness and enhance many other aspects of your daily life, from automotive safety to your entertainment and your view of reality.
There has been an ongoing battle between the aviation and telecoms industries in the US, which has already led to delays in the roll-out of 5G networks. As 5G becomes more widely used, clashes between emerging technology and legacy spectrum users are likely to become more common.
“The issue is that the c-band frequency used for 5G in the US is a little bit close to the frequencies used by altimeters,” explains Roslyn Layton, vice president at telecoms consultancy Strand Consult.
This is a problem, Layton says, because there are few rules governing which parts of the spectrum that altimeters can use. This leads to the potential for conflicts with 5G, particularly when it comes to older devices.
C-band, which sits between the 3.4ghz and 4.2ghz frequencies on the wireless spectrum, is in demand among 5G operators because it offers a good balance of bandwidth and reliability. In February, US operators Verizon and AT&T spent almost $70bn buying the rights to c-band spectrum for their own 5G networks. This was due to come into use earlier this month, but was delayed following a bulletin released by the Federal Aviation Administration, which warned that “action might be required to address potential interference with sensitive aircraft electronics” caused by 5G.
Robin J. Cohen is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA). Ms. Cohen joined the Alliance staff in 2016 as Executive Director of Regulatory Affairs and Spectrum Strategies. She later led that team as Vice President. In 2020, Ms. Cohen was named Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and in June 2021, she became President of the Alliance.
Alan Tilles represents clients involved in all areas of technology, from wired to wireless, from historic to cutting-edge. With over 35 years of wireless experience, Alan Tilles is viewed as one of the “go-to” attorneys in the industry regarding spectrum utilization. He