Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
US mobile carriers are delaying their 5G rollout thanks to an ongoing spat between two government agencies, and it doesn’t look like the situation will be resolving soon. As reported by Bloomberg News, a group of six former FCC chiefs have sent a letter dated this Monday saying they were “concerned about the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) recent efforts to revisit the FCC’s 2020 decision” to open up the C-band to 5G applications.
At heart, the argument is between the federal agencies tasked with regulating airplanes and airwaves: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The agencies disagree about whether it’s safe to allow 5G equipment to operate within a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum known as the C-band. The FAA says that doing so threatens the safety of aircraft, as 5G signals could interfere with the operation of certain altimeters (used to measure height above the ground). The FCC is complying with the FAA’s requests, but some third-party experts say these air safety fears are overblown.
“The FAA position threatens to derail the reasoned conclusions reached by the FCC after years of technical analysis and study,” said the authors of the recent letter, former FCC chiefs Ajit Pai, Tom Wheeler, Mignon Clyburn, Julius Genachowski, Michael Copps, and Michael Powell.
Bloomberg reports that the letter was sent to current FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel and Evelyn Remaley, acting assistant secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (another agency involved in telecoms regulation). The letter reportedly encourages the FCC and the FAA to work together in finding a solution for this problem.
As a result of the FAA’s objections, Verizon and AT&T have delayed the expansion of their 5G networks until at least January 5th. That expansion was set to use the C-band spectrum, which the FAA says threatens aircraft safety. And just last week, the FAA ruled that certain aircraft would not be able to land using guided and automatic systems because of worries these programs could be affected by 5G equipment. The result of this may well be flight delays, thought it’s impossible to say how widespread these problems could be.
But for some industry watchers, the delay to the 5G rollout isn’t just frustrating — it’s nonsensical. They argue that a key FAA study supposedly showing 5G interference with altimeters doesn’t really support the agency’s claims, and note that 40 other countries have already approved or operate 5G equipment in the worrisome C-band without any trouble.
“Either physics works differently in the US, or the report at the center of this controversy needs to explain why [interference] hasn’t shown up in any other country where deployments are either authorized or have already taken place,” writes Harold Feld, a senior vice president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, in an excellent explainer on the spat.
How, exactly, the two agencies will find a resolution and stop fighting over the airwaves is unclear. In a statement reacting to the FCC letter, the FAA told Bloomberg: “[W]e continue to work with federal agencies and the wireless companies.”