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‘It’s embarrassing’: FCC-FAA skirmish over 5G leads to lawmaker frustration

Agencies faulted for breakdown of communication and coordination in tech deployment

A contractor installs 5G cellular equipment on a light pole near Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 19.
A contractor installs 5G cellular equipment on a light pole near Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 19. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Lawmakers on Thursday sharply criticized the process leading up to the deployment of 5G wireless technology around airports last month, repeatedly questioning how the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission had such a disconnect.

“There’s no excuse for us to be in this situation,” Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation. “It’s embarrassing. … It’s ridiculous and inexcusable.”

Committee Chair Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., similarly criticized the “extraordinary lack of communication and coordination between the FCC and the FAA” leading up to the deployment of 5G near airports.

At issue is a chunk of spectrum called the C-band adjacent to bandwidth used by aircraft radar altimeters to navigate in low-visibility situations. After Verizon and AT&T bought the bandwidth in February 2021 for more than $80 billion, the aviation industry worried publicly that deploying that spectrum would put airplanes at risk.

The deployment was delayed multiple times, but the telecoms, the FAA and FCC appeared to have reached a temporary detente, with Verizon and AT&T agreeing not to deploy in areas close to airports and putting a series of mitigations in for at least six months.

[AT&T and Verizon delay 5G deployment near some airports]

Still, Aviation Subcommittee Chair Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said the impact was felt in his district, where Alaska Airlines canceled more than 50 flights to Everett, Wash., on Jan. 24-26, and Graves warned “we are still in the middle of a big mess.”

“Although the temperature has been turned down for now, there’s an awful lot of work to be done by all parties as we move forward,” Graves said.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson agreed. “We recognize that the existing process for spectrum allocation did not serve anyone well,” he said, acknowledging that “there’s no free spectrum anymore.”

[Demand for spectrum pits FCC against other agencies]

Instead, he said, the future would likely include retrofitting filtering devices on altimeters aimed at warding off 5G interference.

Some lawmakers worried that the current agreement would only lead to the same disagreements down the line.

DeFazio questioned whether the six-month agreement to impose mitigations around the 5G towers would lead to the same problems in July, when they expire. “What do you think is going to happen after six months?” he asked.

‘Years, not weeks’

Meredith Attwell Baker, president of the wireless industry trade group CTIA, said she was confident that the FAA and telecoms would reach an agreement that would make the aviation industry “comfortable” with the protections imposed long term.

Other stakeholders were less optimistic. Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America, which represents the major airlines, testified that the process would take “years, not weeks, to fully address.”

“The process that led up to this operational nightmare, or potential operational nightmare, should be held up as a cautionary tale of lack of communication and coordination gone awry,” he said.

Though lawmakers expressed frustration with both the FAA and FCC, DeFazio saved his most strident criticism for both the FCC and a telecommunications industry in dire need of more spectrum, saying the FCC has a “pattern of ignoring consequences beyond the consequences to the profitability of the telecom industry.”

“That’s their only focus,” he said. “The telecoms want this, they need this, they’ve got to have this.”

He said prioritizing telecommunication companies’ needs comes with a risk. “Having a dropped call is a lot less serious than having a dropped airplane from the sky,” he said.

DeFazio spoke during an all-day hearing that featured FAA chief Dickson and multiple aviation representatives, but no representative from the FCC.

Instead, Baker, of CTIA, served as the lone spokesperson for the industry. She said the carriers had repeatedly agreed to mitigations aimed at safeguarding aviation safety.

She said the collaborative relationship and resulting detente demonstrated “the successful coexistence of 5G and flights.”

Roughly 90 percent of commercial planes have been cleared to operate despite the deployment, but according to Calio, “haven’t been cleared to land everywhere.”

He said airlines are currently operating under a complicated and changing patchwork of FAA orders aimed at determining where there could be interference between 5G and aviation technology. “We need to come up with a better process long term, because this can’t be kept in place,” Calio said.

The aviation conflict was one of two fights that the Department of Transportation has waged over bandwidth. In 2019, the FCC voted to give away more than half the bandwidth previously reserved for transportation safety and connected vehicles. The auto industry is fighting that decision in federal court.

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