A long-simmering dispute over promising new wireless technology burst into public view in the past week and threatened to further disrupt U.S. air travel already hobbled by the new omicron Covid variant.
The fight over whether a new service for mobile phones would interfere with the electronics airline pilots need to land their planes pitted some of the nation’s most powerful corporations and industries against each other and reached the Oval Office before a truce was called earlier this week.
While the public feud seemed to erupt out of nowhere, the battle had been quietly brewing for years in a tangle of contradictory reports and mutual mistrust. The federal agencies that are supposed to mediate such disputes let it fester.
After days of brinkmanship featuring a New Year’s Eve plea from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the conflict paused on Monday as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. agreed to a two-week delay in activating their new 5G service on frequencies the government sold for $81 billion. President Joe Biden hailed the cooling-off pact as a “significant step in the right direction.”
Details still need to be worked out, such as power levels for 5G transmitters and buffers around certain airports. But the telecommunications giants, who have already fallen behind T-Mobile US Inc. in the race to offer the revolutionary next generation service, made clear there would be no more voluntary delays.
The aviation industry—itself reeling from an extended pandemic downturn—will have to quickly adopt whatever mitigations will be needed, which may still create flight disruptions. A threatened lawsuit by airlines is on hold, as are a bundle of emergency advisories to pilots about potential interference.
“It’s become a total standoff,” said aviation consultant Robert Mann. “You have this very highly regulated safety culture in aviation and this ‘anything goes’ culture in telecom.”
On the surface the fight was over a narrow technical issue: The effect of 5G signals set to operate over airwaves previously used for less-powerful transmissions. Those frequencies, known as the C-band, are near airwaves used by aircraft radar altimeters—sensitive devices that track altitude, allowing landings in foul weather and that also feed multiple critical safety systems.
Wireless providers insist that their use of the airwaves will be safe, given authorized power levels and a gap between their signals and the frequencies used for altimeters.
“Our two companies are deeply committed to public safety and national security, and fortunately, the question of whether 5G operations can safely coexist with aviation has long been settled,” the chief executives of AT&T and Verizon said in a Jan. 2 letter to U.S. transportation officials.
Yet several groups representing regulators, airlines, pilots and airports issued dire warnings in the days before the Jan. 5 scheduled rollout of the service disputing those assurances. Flights might have to be re-routed, they said, creating havoc for passengers.
The impetus to move 5G signals into the C-band lay with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. With the enthusiastic backing of the wireless industry, the agency in recent years has pushed to re-order U.S. airwaves to accommodate booming mobile data traffic. The C-band offered a virtual highway for the signals that would help the U.S. in the so-called “race to 5G” against China touted by President Donald Trump in April 2019.
The aviation industry had made its misgivings known. In a May 2018 filing with the FCC, the Air Line Pilots Association warned that altimeters were critical to avoiding catastrophes, noting a deadly 2009 crash of a Turkish Airlines jet blamed on a faulty altimeter. The pilots urged the FCC to involve the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in its deliberations.
The FAA was working behind the scenes, funding research and participating in international groups working on the issue. But it didn’t file any formal comments with the FCC as the communications agency worked toward its February 2020 decision to let 5G into the C-band.
Other aviation interests, however, had plenty to say. Twenty-two organizations, including Delta Air Lines Inc., United Airlines Inc., altimeter maker Garmin International Inc. and plane manufacturer Boeing Co., filed a letter with the FCC in October 2019, saying that tests of altimeters “demonstrated a need for caution” and for more data.
The FCC dealt with the issue in paragraphs 390-to-395 of its 413-paragraph order re-assigning the airwaves in February 2020. The agency said that aviation hadn’t shown harmful interference would likely result from the change. It said further study was “warranted” and encouraged industries to cooperate.
A technical study group was formed by the industries to look into the issue. But by November 2020 it ceased operating after its members failed to reach consensus and decided more talks wouldn’t serve a useful purpose.
The FAA weighed in the next month with a letter asking for help in slowing the FCC from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which referees airwaves disputes between federal agencies.
The letter came one week before the FCC began its auction of C-band airwaves that eventually produced $81 billion in bids.
Adam Candeub, the top NTIA official, declined to send the letter on to the FCC.
“What they came forth with was not enough for us to do something,” Candeub, now a law professor at Michigan State University, said in an interview. “They came in at the last minute with a report that left serious questions, and when we asked they told us to pound sand.”
Jeffrey Shane, a former undersecretary of transportation under President George W. Bush, said he couldn’t say whether the NTIA or FAA were correct in their technical assessment of 5G, but the NTIA had an obligation to at least inform the FCC and wireless companies of the concerns.
“That to me is a broken system,” he said. “The fact is the agency charged with keeping us safe while we’re all flying was essentially muzzled by a subdivision of the Department of Commerce.”
Larry Kudlow, who was director of the National Economic Council at the time, said the Trump administration was skeptical of the concerns raised by the aviation industry. On Dec. 23, he said on his Fox Business program that “We actually fought the FAA and we won.”
“The FAA is belly-aching about 5G,” he said. “The airlines are belly-aching about 5G. We ignored them ‘cuz the science said don’t worry about it.”
For its part, the FAA says it did everything it could to avoid the last-minute crisis. “The record is clear—the aviation community raised objections and concerns to 5G deployment at high-powered levels,” the FAA said in a statement.
With the Jan. 3 agreement, officials are eager—for now—to tell a story of cooperation.
The accord “provides the framework and the certainty needed to achieve our shared goal of deploying 5G swiftly while ensuring air safety,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.
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