T&I Hearing on 5G Provides an Opportunity for Answers

Following months of disagreement between federal regulators on 5G rollout in the C-Band, Congress has finally decided to step in. On February 3rd, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will hold a hearing to examine 5G deployment and aviation safety. 

Last November, I argued that this dispute was a prime area for Congress to employ its fact-finding role by bringing both sides to the table publicly. Now that the T&I Committee has scheduled just such a hearing, there are several important questions that lawmakers should pose.     

Background and The Current State of Play

Back in November, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and aviation industry warned that 5G signals near airports could potentially interfere with some aeronautical radio altimeters (RAs). A report by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) found that “this risk is widespread and has the potential for broad impacts to aviation operations in the United States, including the possibility of catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of appropriate mitigations.”  

Out of an abundance of caution, wireless carriers — who had planned to begin 5G rollout last December — have agreed to a series of delays. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the wireless industry maintain that the concern is totally unwarranted. The CTIA, which represents the U.S. wireless communications industry, argued that the RTCA report suffered from “fundamental defects” and was “not supported by sound science.” Most significantly, the CTIA pointed out that 5G services in the C-Band already operate in almost 40 countries “without causing harmful interference to aviation equipment.”    

Following intervention by the Department of Transportation in late December, an agreement between wireless carriers and the FAA earlier this month promised to resolve the issue. But a letter from the airline industry once again left 5G rollout in limbo. 

As of mid-January, AT&T and Verizon have “voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment.” However, as I stated in a recent blog, the wireless carrier’s irritation by the continual moving goal post is clear. AT&T and Verizon further stated: “We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done…”  

Questions Seeking Answers   

The socioeconomic potential of 5G technology is massive. Yet, it is just as important that the millions of Americans traveling by air every day remain safe. 

Whenever federal regulatory agencies are at loggerheads as they are with 5G, Congress should intercede. The upcoming hearing provides a perfect opportunity for members of the T&I Committee to ask important questions that have remained unanswered. 

At the time of writing, the T&I Committee has yet to announce which witnesses will testify. However, it is safe to presume that representatives from both the FAA and FCC will be in attendance. Here are a few questions that the Committee should pose to these witnesses:    

Questions for the FAA

  • The FCC and wireless industry have repeatedly claimed that 5G services in the C-Band operate safely in over three dozen foreign countries with no reports of interference or catastrophic failures. Why would deploying 5G services near domestic airports cause interference in aircraft that can land safely in other countries under similar circumstances?
  • Are there any safeguards employed in other countries or other notable distinctions between the way 5G has been rolled out in these countries and how these services are to be deployed domestically?
  • The Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin entitled Risk of Potential Adverse Effects on Radio Altimeters issued by the FAA on November 2, 2021, recommended that “radio altimeter manufacturers, aircraft manufacturers, and operators voluntarily provide to federal authorities specific information related to altimeter design and functionality, specifics on deployment and usage of radio altimeters in aircraft, and that they test and assess their equipment in conjunction with federal authorities.” Have these entities been complying with your request, and if so, what are the findings of these reports?

Questions for the FCC

  • This is not the first time that major disagreements have disrupted plans for 5G deployment. The disagreement between Ligado and the Department of Defense comes to mind. With the FCC continuing to auction off spectrum, what is the Commission doing to ensure that these disagreements are preemptively handled?
  • In the original auction, the FCC included several safeguards with the specific intent of protecting aeronautical operations from harmful interference. Do you maintain that these safeguards are sufficient? 
  • One safeguard implemented in the C-Band rules and regulations is a 220 MHz “guard band” to protect aviation equipment from interference. Has the Commission considered expanding this guard band to further protect radio altimeters? If so, what would be the implications of expanding this guard band?

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