In early December, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a new rule restricting aircraft and helicopters from using certain automated flight systems in low-visibility situations due to claimed 5G interference with altimeters, though there is little evidence behind such concerns. The rule, combined with the FAA’s opposition to allocating the mid-range spectrum for 5G communications, threatens the timely upgrade of U.S. commercial telecommunications networks.

AT&T and Verizon were set to deploy 5G networks using swathes in the mid-range “C-band” spectrum in December. The C-band spectrum is suitable for 5G communications because it combines both high- and low-end wireless ranges, and could pave the way for 5G-enabled emerging technologies like augmented reality and remote precision surgery.

The FAA’s newest delay to 5G deployment could harm U.S. global competitiveness in 5G networks and related technologies. Due to the FAA’s concerns, AT&T and Verizon voluntarily agreed to delay mid-band spectrum deployment for a month and reduce the power of 5G base stations for six months. Meanwhile, nearly 40 countries have allocated C-band spectrum for 5G usage, and the United States risks falling behind its international competitors.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), following years of technical analysis, safety evaluation and consultation with the FAA, auctioned and approved mid-band spectrum usage for several companies in 2020. But the FAA now claims that mid-band 5G deployment will interfere with aircraft altimeters and create aviation risks. The FAA’s new rule – which applies to more than 6,800 airplanes – will likely result in unnecessary flight cancellations and delays at major airports.

While the FAA’s safety concerns might seem reasonable, policy makers should be skeptical of the agency’s claims. First, to support its claims of 5G creating flight safety risks, the FAA relies on a report from the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) that major international regulators have largely rebutted. According to experts at the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, the RTCA’s conclusions are “too conservative” and lack “sufficient evidence.” Even as the FAA warns about aviation safety risks from mid-range 5G signals, the agency has previously acknowledged that it is aware of no “proven reports of harmful interference.”

Second, nearly 40 countries that already allow 5G communication in the C-band spectrum have yielded little empirical evidence of mid-band 5G interference with aviation systems. Denmark, Norway and Spain have used 5G systems, including in the mid-band spectrum, for three years without any known case of interference to flights. The European Union Safety Agency reports that it is “not aware of any reported occurrence that relates to possible interference originating from 5G base stations.” Australia, China, Japan and the United Kingdom allocate swathes within the C-band spectrum for 5G usage and have not encountered any known safety issues. Available data from flight tests conducted by the French military and the Norwegian Communications Authority suggest that mid-band spectrum 5G and current aviation systems can coexist without harmful interference.  

In the United States, the Navy uses two radar systems that operate just below the C-band threshold, using power levels approximately 10,000 times greater than 5G stations. Likewise, the U.S. aviation industry uses a separate intra-communications system that operates using an identical spectrum to that used by radio altimeters — without harming flight navigation systems.

The FAA and several government agencies have a long history of objecting to innovative technologies with little basis for establishing safety risks. Beyond the FAA, other government departments – including the Department of Defense (DOD) – have long opposed the allocation of unused spectrum for 5G usage, arguably because it would reduce the DOD’s hold on the technology. Even the Department of Education has been unwilling to share its allocated spectrum, even though the department has little use for it.

Fortunately, many telecommunications policymakers and market participants are skeptical of the FAA’s claims. Most recently, six former FCC chiefs (including Democrats and Republican) have expressed concerns about the FAA’s claims to derail the FCC’s 2020 decision to allocate mid-band spectrum for 5G usage.

The FAA’s safety record is undoubtedly impressive, but in the context of mid-band spectrum allocation for 5G networks, both Democrats and Republicans should be wary of its unsubstantiated interference claims. Congress, the Biden administration and the FCC need to ensure that the FAA’s opposition does not derail U.S. leadership in the next generation of 5G-enabled technologies.

Ryan Nabil is a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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