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Spectrum auction could boot weather forecasting back to the 1970s, lawmakers warn

Appropriators call for delay of auction set for Thursday

The Federal Communications Commission, led by Ajit Pai, plans to go ahead with a spectrum auction aimed at securing American leadership in 5G. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Federal Communications Commission, led by Ajit Pai, plans to go ahead with a spectrum auction aimed at securing American leadership in 5G. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senior House members, citing a potential threat to the safety of millions of people, urgently asked a federal agency Wednesday to delay an auction of radio frequency spectrum that is slated to occur Thursday.

If that spectrum is used for 5G wireless communications, as planned, it could interfere with government satellites’ ability to collect data in a nearby band — information on which accurate weather forecasts hinge, three House Appropriations subcommittee chairmen said in a letter obtained by Roll Call.

Such information is “critical for national security as well as the protection of American lives and property,” they wrote to Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which plans to hold the auction.

“Without this data, the nation’s forecasting capacity would be reduced to the accuracy of the forecasts produced in the 1970s,” the Democratic appropriators wrote. “For example, the forecast for Superstorm Sandy would have predicted landfall in Maine 24 hours later than actual landfall occurred in New Jersey, roughly 300 miles away. This would have further imperiled millions of Americans.”

The letter was written by Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana, chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense; Mike Quigley of Illinois, chairman of the Financial Services panel; and Jose E. Serrano of New York, chairman of the Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee.

The appropriators called for delaying the auction and requested information about the rationale for the FCC’s decision. They also sought assurances about any protections against interference with the collection of weather data.

What’s more, they requested internal federal communications about the matter. Several departments and agencies reportedly have criticized the proposed auction.

Government satellites need to be able to record data about ocean water vapor to accurately predict weather patterns, the appropriators wrote. Interference from communications in the part of the spectrum the FCC plans to auction off — between 24.25 and 25.25 gigahertz — could compromise those data collection efforts, they said. The military, too, relies on accurate weather information derived by those satellites to effectively employ forces.

Also on Wednesday, leaders of the House Science Committee sent a similar letter expressing concerns to Pai, according to news reports.

Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, the committee chairwoman, and Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma, its ranking member, voiced concern that the FCC appears to be dismissing the views and concerns of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Pentagon, National Academy of Sciences and the international community.

News reports have indicated that officials at those federal organizations have expressed worries about the planned auction.

Notwithstanding the widespread concerns, the FCC plans to move forward with Thursday’s auction, said Brian Hart, the commission’s spokesman, in a statement Wednesday evening.

He called the auction an important step toward securing American leadership in 5G. He said the FCC coordinated its decision on the matter with other departments and agencies. And he said the FCC will protect other spectrum bands.

“It is therefore perplexing to be asked to postpone this auction the day before it is going to start,” Hart said. “While our nation’s international competitors would undoubtedly be pleased if we delayed this auction of greenfield spectrum at the last minute, the FCC will move forward as planned so that our nation can win the race to 5G and the American people can quickly enjoy the benefits of the next generation of wireless connectivity.”

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