Federal 5G Disfunction Only Helps China | Opinion

The race to 5G is on, and America is falling behind. China's Huawei Technologies Co. alone manufactures about one quarter of global 5G equipment and has now built out more than half of the 140 commercial 5G networks around the world. What's more, Huawei claims their equipment supports over earlier technology in 300 networks across over 170 countries—meaning they already have a leg up over the competition in expanding their 5G base.

Meanwhile, 5G deployment in the United States has encountered another setback. Earlier this month, AT&T and Verizon announced a delay in the rollout of 5G service in critical C-band spectrum due to an internecine fight between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The issue? Whether terrestrial 5G systems might have some chance of interfering with radio altimeters on older airplanes.

Let's step back for a second. Four years ago, the FCC announced its 5G FAST Plan to secure the U.S.' dominant position in 5G. One plank was an all-of-the-above approach to open more spectrum bands for 5G (spectrum is the invisible real estate that helps mobile devices connect to wireless networks). And the plan worked—opening wide swathes of new spectrum to 5G and setting America up as the worldwide leader in 5G deployments in 2020. That lead gave a leg up to trusted equipment vendors like Samsung and Ericsson, and new entrants like Mavenir, to develop and deploy cutting edge technologies.

A key feature of the 5G FAST Plan was for the FCC to open up 280 MHz of spectrum in the C-band for 5G wireless services. C-band is particularly useful because it is mid-band spectrum that can reach greater distances, increasing the 5G footprint at lower cost. In other words, access to C-band spectrum can bring 5G access nationwide.

Given that opening up the C-band has been on the table in the United States since 2017, it was surprising that the FAA last month said it may need to ground certain airplanes if there wasn't a delay in 5G deployment. The FAA's concerns stem from C-band's frequencies, which are near spectrum used by radio altimeters, and a study commissioned by the aviation industry sounding the alarm.

A shop for Chinese telecom giant Huawei
A shop for Chinese telecom giant Huawei features a red sticker reading "5G" in Beijing on May 25, 2020. NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

But the science isn't on the FAA's side here. For one, the study does not comport with today's aviation safety standards—and if some of the claims are to be believed, the affected planes should already be grounded. For another, nearly 40 other countries use C-band at the same power levels, and none have reported any incident of interfering with flights.

What is more, this issue was already studied—and resolved—by the FCC in the C-band proceeding. There, the commission found that interference was not "likely" nor "even reasonably foreseeable," in part because the agency created a significant guard band (220 MHz, double the minimum safety requirement) to protect altimeters. And the commission carefully calibrated mobile carriers' power levels to further eliminate any chance of interference. To put this in perspective, the FAA is essentially filing a noise complaint about a neighbor—who lives three blocks away, playing their stereo on low.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time a federal agency has cried wolf. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has claimed that land-based 5G would interfere with its ability to track the weather over oceans. The Department of Transportation has claimed more WiFi could interfere with a 20-year automotive technology that's never been widely deployed. And the Department of Defense has asked for a four-year delay on sharing any additional mid-band spectrum for 5G.

The common thread is that these federal agencies, like a peeved football coach, cry interference in the eleventh hour whenever new, innovative technologies threaten their own bureaucratic interests. Each time, the FCC, designated by Congress as the official referee, has made the right call and recognized that sound engineering, not histrionics, should guide spectrum policy.

Nonetheless, the FAA is still following the old playbook. As before, the solution is a technical one, which may require some older aircraft to actually come into compliance with modern safety standards. But it's nonetheless disturbing that, after repeated calls from the administration and Congress for federal users to work with the FCC to resolve any concerns, federal agencies are still going public with alarmist rhetoric.

If the United States is going to win the race to 5G, the infighting needs to stop. China is no longer a sleeping giant in the 5G space, it is by all metrics the Thanos to our Avengers. Given that our government sits on nearly 60 percent of the U.S.' spectrum, we need interagency cooperation to take care of the real threat gaining on 5G—a totalitarian regime controlling the tool to the most important information machine that has ever existed.

Joel Thayer is president of the Digital Progress Institute and an attorney based in Washington, D.C. The Digital Progress Institute is a D.C. non-profit seeking to bridge the policy divide between telecom and tech through bipartisan consensus.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.