Why Does the FAA Want to Stymie Broadband Buildout?

In the smart cities realm, it is well known and well discussed that government at any level comes with its fair share of bureaucracy. While public sector processes can be frustrating for those who want to move fast and see change happen quickly, sometimes being thoughtful and deliberate has great benefits, even if it takes a little more time. But when the common good is thwarted by deliberate government delays, it’s time to take a more critical look at the role of rules and regulations. 

So What’s the Problem? 

There is an interesting multiplayer-tangle taking place between government and industry related to 5G. While 5G delivers lighting-fast connectivity to end consumers, the process to get 5G to market is anything but speedy. Just this month two significant federal agencies – the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – are wrangling over who gets to decide what spectrum is used by whom and where.  

The latest slow down involves C-band. In the 1970s, C-band was important for delivering signals via satellite dishes – remember those big clunky disks?  After a multi-year auction process and a reorganization of who can use what, some of those C-band frequencies are now available to use for 5G deployment. This is a good thing, as it offers the opportunity to accelerate innovation in smart cities for technologies that require large amounts of bandwidth.  All sounds great, right? It would seem that, on the surface, repurposing C-band spectrum for 5G and its highest value use would be a real crowd pleaser. Yeah, not so fast. Enter the FAA.

Wringing Hands in Washington D.C. 

Even though the topic of 5G and C-band has been in discussions and studied by technical experts for years, now that wireless companies are ready for rollout, the FAA is claiming that proposed 5G signals will interfere with cockpit safety systems and flight equipment, specifically altimeter readings. Let’s be clear that safety is always concern number one – no one is going to argue that point especially as Americans are hoping to hop on a plane after years of Pandemic-related travel inactivity.  

Any concern on air travel safety has to be carefully considered and vetted. Over several years, the FCC reviewed the potential impact on aviation, stating, “well-designed equipment should not ordinarily receive any significant interference let alone harmful interference.” But just to be safe, a guard band a.k.a buffer zone band was created to mitigate any impact with flight equipment. The FCC set its rules for use of the spectrum in early 2020 and issued new licenses for wireless companies. In nearly 40 countries, business went on as usual with carriers using C-band frequencies without incident.  

Fast forward to today and the FAA is now putting new energy and urgency around the impact of C-band spectrum to airline carriers. Telecom carriers that were ready to deploy spectrum on December 5th of this year have recently announced a precautionary mitigation plan after originally agreeing to a voluntary deployment pause of 30 days to allow time to further study and allow the agencies time to work out their differences.  Taking these extra measures shows good faith for fair vetting of the issue even though extensive testing and experienced-based evidence reveals no negative impact between C-Band 5G and flight safety. 

So What’s Next?

In summary, it seems that safety is being used as a scapegoat. This latest 5G back and forth smacks of federal agency football as bureaucrats wrestle for control and influence in the digital age and fight to maintain issue dominance. This type of resistance infighting has “plagued two U.S. administrations” per the Wall Street Journal. 

While federal agencies fumble, 5G broadband deployment is in limbo. While a one-month delay isn’t likely to significantly alter the course of history, the concern is more about the unknown future. Ambiguity is kryptonite for any sort of infrastructure deployment – digital or physical. 

The smart city movement, after so many years of uncertainty due to undefined funding paths and sector incentive misalignment, finally has a chance for success thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The last thing local municipalities need is to slow down network deployment. We want to incentivize the private sector to continue to invest in 5G and we want our federal agencies to provide clear guidance on the appropriate ways to do this. 

So let’s prioritize innovation, investment and digital infrastructure and move forward with 5G. There are plenty of other power plays to keep our federal bureaucracy busy.  Given that all of the safety concerns have been considered and vetted, let’s let this one – well – fly.