Consumers, Taxpayers Swept Up in a Drawn Out Interagency Squabble

Consumers watching the news are asking themselves, ‘what is happening with air travel and 5G?’ Seemingly every week, there is a new twist in the tale, a new agreement, or a promise to continue working together towards a solution. While the public reporting on this issue ramped up starting in November 2021 with news that there would be an initial voluntary delay of the 5G rollout for one month (with more delays following) so relevant parties could evaluate safety concerns, this issue has been bubbling under the surface for years, and the federal government is the primary reason it hasn’t been resolved.

At issue is a disagreement on whether the deployment of 5G in C-band could cause safety issues for airplanes and helicopters. Specifically, air industry groups and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) believe that the mid-band spectrum could cause harmful interference with radio altimeters, devices used to determine altitude and assist with landings. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) disagrees with this assessment. As NTU wrote in December 2021, legitimate safety concerns should be evaluated and considered, but at the same time, the U.S. must avoid unnecessary, bureaucratic delays. Unfortunately, there has yet to be a balanced resolution to this issue.

Background on this issue is important. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the federal agency responsible for allocating commercial spectrum. Spectrum is a limited resource that can transmit data. In the race for 5G, the next generation of telecommunication technology, allocating spectrum so it is fully utilized is critical. 5G deployment requires mid-band spectrum, and as Jeff Westling, Director of Technology and Innovation at the American Action Forum, explains, many telecommunication companies lacked mid-band spectrum in their inventories since it wasn’t necessary for older technologies to function properly. Ensuring more spectrum is available for commercial use to meet consumers’ 5G demand was, and still is, a goal of the FCC.

In 2018, President Trump signed into law the MOBILE NOW Act, which directed the FCC to report on the feasibility of allowing commercial wireless services to share the use of the frequencies between 3700 megahertz and 4200 megahertz. Many organizations provided comments from varying perspectives on the matter. In May 2018, the Air Line Pilots Association raised the issue of altimeter interference, as did Airlines for America. The FAA and aviation groups point to a study from a nonprofit aviation technical body that states 5G could interfere with altimeters.

However, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said this study had serious flaws and the warnings had no meaningful evidence behind them. The FCC, for their part, believes that they evaluated and addressed relevant safety concerns. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr stated that rules that safeguard aeronautical services from harmful interference were adopted. One of these precautions includes a 220 MHz guard band, double the size of the band suggested by aviation groups during initial comments. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), a communications trade association, holds that 5G and aviation safety are compatible, as 40 countries are using C-Band spectrum today.

While some might view this as a squabble between telecommunication companies and the airlines, the federal government deserves much of the blame here. The safety concerns that are being discussed are not new. Similarly, the work by the FCC took place over the course of many years, from the MOBILE NOW Act to the $81 billion spectrum auction. The government should have addressed these issues and ensured all interested parties would be comfortable with the solution. The current back and forth situation between the FAA, FCC, Department of Transportation, and NTIA need never have happened. This wasn’t a last-minute complaint, it was one the government should’ve seen coming and reconciled.

To remain viable businesses, airlines want to serve passengers with minimal disruption, and telecommunications companies want to serve consumers with the latest technology. Unfortunately, interagency disagreement and less-than-assertive leadership from the NTIA on this issue seem to have complicated both of these goals. As the FCC, FAA, and Biden administration disagree on whether there would be harmful interference, or to what degree there could be interference, consumers are left in limbo facing potential flight disruptions, delays in new technology, and overall uncertainty about how this disagreement will impact them.

In addition to the more obvious harms to consumers, there could be other negative impacts on taxpayers. Spectrum auctions are an important tool to allocate a limited resource, and the proceeds the government collects are intended to go toward deficit reduction. The U.S. debt is currently nearing $30 trillion. If telecommunications companies believe interagency roadblocks or delays are inevitable, they would reasonably see less value in the licenses and be less willing to pay a premium price for them. In turn, this means less money raised for addressing the nation’s debt due to avoidable bureaucratic delays.

According to the most recent media accounts, the additional delay to which the C-Band spectrum auction winners agreed with aviation has allowed more than 90 percent of commercial aircraft to be cleared for flight in newly deployed 5G areas, while certain restrictions over the long term as well as altimeters in regional aircraft have yet to be resolved. Encouragingly, private sector actors are now working hard to find the solutions that public sector agencies apparently have not been able to develop and implement. Westling suggests that one possible remedy to avoid bottlenecks like these is to update the memorandum of understanding between FAA and NTIA so that it better delineates responsibilities and courses of action.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the federal government has been involved in delays and disruptions. The Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, and the House Committee on Transportation have all been involved in spectrum fights and delays. Not only does this current issue need to be addressed fully, swiftly, and reasonably, but leadership is needed to avoid these costly interagency fights in the future. Interagency dysfunction doesn’t serve consumers, provide confidence for the private sector, or position the U.S. to lead in 5G — or 6G — technology.