The deployment of C-band 5G has inspired so many vitriolic accusations, blame assignments based on “assumptions,” and criticisms without factual citations. As with conflicts among federal agencies, service providers Verizon and AT&T, consumers of new technology, and those who may be affected collaterally by this innovation, little of the underlying substance was revealed. Proprietary data, safety systems’ susceptibility to interference, and the normal debate tactics of not showing your hand minimized the relevant information to the outside observers.
Ironically, one of the greatest benefits of 5G is a “faster, better delivery of information.” In the last few weeks, the trouble has become more transparent—the data is the thing to capture the safety of flying. The record makes it clear that the FAA was not willing to permit the aircraft under its statutory highest levels of safety jurisdiction without more detailed data (performance parameters that gave the FAA radio analyst enough to measure the interaction between the 5G signals and radar altimeters).
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, who is well known to be an analytical adherent (as Nate Silver said, “it’s the numbers, stupid”), appears to have taken the lead on insisting that the FCC, Verizon, and AT&T share the granular parameters of their 5G signals.
The real problem underlying this horrendous public policy debate appears to have been the reluctance of the communications industry (not aware of any public statement of why) to share the robust numbers. Administrator Dickson insisted on having access to the granular frequency profile that would reduce the risk of interference to zero. The “40-other-countries-do-it” argument (that the EU and other countries where 5G and altimeters have co-existed so far) used in the comms industry reflects a view that aviation safety needs only be close enough, a theorem demonstrated to be analytically superficial by the FAA’s chart depicting differences in buffer zones, power emission, and antenna angles.
Perhaps, the wireless carriers were worried about sharing highly proprietary data with the aviation sector. But the FAA’s protection of confidential information equals or perhaps exceeds Fort Knox gold seepage. But the surprise of the communications giants over the heightened debate in recent months is curious.
According to the FAA, “In 2020 ahead of the auction for 5G C-Band, the FAA again raised concerns and asked for a postponement to collaborate on a solution. The [National Telecommunications and Information Agency], the federal government coordinator on spectrum disputes, failed to put the 2020 letter into the FCC's docket. Throughout 2021, the aviation industry continued to ask for additional collaboration and time in anticipation of the complications we now face. The industry also held several meetings throughout the year to find solutions, including in June and October.”
It appears that the FAA was finally given the detailed data sometime in early January—before the first aircraft approval to fly without regard to 5G antennae on January 16, depending on the time it takes to make the safety checks.
Sorting out who did what, why, and when is a task for a scholar from the Harvard Kennedy School (or elsewhere) with access to all the records to research. A superficial perspective points to the reluctance to share data. The U.S. Department of Defense is going through the same 5G C-band exercise and does not expect completed tests until mid-2022. Once the FAA received the requisite data, the staff immediately issued approvals for aircraft types to operate in a full 5G atmosphere:
• Jan. 16, 2022: Boeing 737, 747, 757, 767, MD-10/-11 and Airbus A310, A319, A320, A321,A330 and A350
• Jan. 19, 2022: Boeing 717, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, MD-10/-11 and Airbus A300, A310, A319, A320, A330, A340, A350 and A380
• Jan. 20, 2022: estimated 78 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet
More analyses are in the works and by January 28, the FAA said 90 percent of commercial aircraft had received such approvals. The sophisticated avionics of many business aircraft could be adequate to function well with 5G transmissions, but approvals are still forthcoming. And general aviation does not typically spend as much on this equipment.
What has not been mentioned in this kerfuffle is the damage to the international reputations of the FCC and FAA. The bashing on public display has been observed by their regulatory peers around the world. Not good!!!
This debacle needs to be studied because this is not the last technological innovation requiring multiple, contemporary federal approvals. The root cause of this mess should be identified and a solution for future such cases needs to be proposed.
Sandy Murdock posts his insights about aviation safety at the JDA Journal. His perspectives derive from years with the FAA, United Airlines, NBAA, and the practice of law representing U.S. and foreign carriers, city/state/foreign governments, OEMs (airframe, powerplants, avionics), foreign and domestic repair stations, airports, and individual certificate holders.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.