Wireless Carriers Balk At FAA Demand For 5G Deployment Delays Amid Shaky Safety Concerns

from the regulatory-shenanigans dept

We’d already noted how the FAA had been making some shaky claims about how 5G deployments in the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz “C-Band” spectrum range posed safety threats to airline safety. More specifically, the FAA claims operating in this band poses a potential interference problem for airline altimeters. The problem: FCC data, and data from upwards of 40 countries where 5G is already deployed in this band, suggest the concerns are baseless, and that the FCC’s decision to set aside a 220 MHz unused guard band to act as a buffer was more than enough to prevent any issues whatsoever.

It’s been a bit of a weird story given the FAA’s own documents have suggested that there isn’t a problem. And the FAA, instead of initially working transparently with the FCC (the regulator with specific expertise on this kind of stuff), instead spent the last few months leaking scary stories to the press. The FAA then issued an order pausing all 5G deployment in this C-Band.

Deployment in this band matters to you because U.S. 5G performance has been largely mediocre, in large part because of our failure to make middle-band spectrum available for use. We’ve got plenty of high-band spectrum (high speeds, but limited range and poor building wall penetration) and lots of low-band spectrum (great range but slower speeds), but not much in the middle (a decent combination of speed, penetration, and range). Verizon and AT&T recently paid $70 billion to deploy this spectrum, and aren’t keen on any additional delays for obvious reasons.

The two companies had already agreed to a 30-day deployment pause, and to lower the power of transmissions at this range. But in a letter to the FAA last week, the two balked at any additional, prolonged delays:

“At its core, your proposed framework asks that we agree to transfer oversight of our companies? multi-billion dollar investment in 50 unnamed metropolitan areas representing the lion?s share of the U.S. population to the FAA for an undetermined number of months or years. Even worse, the proposal is directed to only two companies, regardless of the terms of licenses auctioned and granted, and to the exception of every other company and industry within the purview of the FCC.”

AT&T and Verizon did agree to avoid deploying 5G around any airports for six months in a bid to mirror select exclusion zones currently adopted in places like France. Again, the altimeters and landing guidance systems the FAA is concerned about don’t actually operate in this band, and the existing buffer and exclusion zones means transmissions shouldn’t get anywhere close to causing a problem. But that doesn’t seem to matter much to the FAA, which seems excited to flex its regulatory muscle here instead of working transparently and collaboratively with the agency that actually knows how these systems work (the FCC, a reality just reiterated by the courts).

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Comments on “Wireless Carriers Balk At FAA Demand For 5G Deployment Delays Amid Shaky Safety Concerns”

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16 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The list of potentially affected US airports is not trivial

define ‘potentially affected’ please.

From the article it sounds like what the FAA is doing would be similar to me saying "Deploying wifi in these frequencies will adversely affect the cooking performance of my microwave; therefore, deployment must be suspended" while not providing any solid evidence to support that conclusion.

e100 says:

Re: Re: The list of potentially affected US airports is not triv

The FAA has a valid concern here.
I want 5G everywhere too but I don’t want to pay for it with dead bodies when airplanes fly into terrain.

From the testing results I have read interference actually does exist, its not merely ‘potential’

I think what is not really known is what makes/models of radio altimeters are vulnerable to the interference. For example some likely have better filtering than others making them less vulnerable. That 220Mhz buffer very well could be insufficient to prevent interference.

If you want to understand how one frequency can have an impact on another frequency even with a buffer watch this video:
https://youtu.be/hlyPjLIFUGE

If you want to read an actual assessment of the interference then read this:
https://www.rtca.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/SC-239-5G-Interference-Assessment-Report_274-20-PMC-2073_accepted_changes.pdf

Full disclosure I am a pilot so might be biased with the FAA but I only fly small 1 or 2 person aircraft that are not equipped with radio altimeters.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The list of potentially affected US airports is not

Well, the radio altimeters that may be affected are only used on final approach, when flying blind and from 250ft agl down. They are only relied on when the pilot does not expect to see the runway until the wheels touch. A ban under the final glide slopes might be sensible, but a general ban is not required as outside of a blind final approach, the potentially impacted radars are not used or relied on.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The list of potentially affected US airports is not

"full disclosure I cant badmouth the FAA because I need them to approve a licence, I don’t use the technology in question, and am not an engineer so my opinions aren’t very relevant, but here is a paper, not peer reviewed mind you, from an organization funded and run in part by the FAA.

Yes that is the paper the FAA cites. At 231 pages its not light reading. Such a heavily technical paper isn’t something you or I is best qualified to really assess. What I can rely on is the FAA has long banned cell phone use during takeoff and landing. They have never considered ground based installations an issue. 5g is notoriously shorter ranged than the cell phone or wireless signals, meaning that the low-impact approach should be the old standby. You know, turn off your phones? the one no one listens to and nothing bad happens?

This paper does not address real world data from more than 40 countries who have setup 5g in this spectrum and no interference was seen. The paper discusses the possible issues. Issues which never seem to occur in real life. France took your concerns into account, barred 5g near airports and final approach. The FAA says that isn’t sufficient. that we need more study, but as with cell phones we can’t even study it in real world conditions on a clear day when the side effects would be minimal. Lab data can’t alleviate the theoretical concerns the FAA poses.

We can never prove something safe. Most "safe" things are only safe when used as intended. If your standard for 5g deployment is that there can be no issues, we can ban 5g entirely. That’s the only option. No amount of lab data compares to real world data. No amount of lab data can ever prove something
‘safe’. 200 years from now we might have enough real-world data to say that in 2021 there were no threats from millimeter wave 5g. But by then that assessment is out of date, as new possibly synergistic tech comes along.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Perhaps the FAA staff are just acting out of an abundance of caution?
I mean they saw nothing wrong with the 737 MAX & pushed for them to be back in the air right away before ignoring the crashes made them look that much dumber.
They took a hands off approach there and it bit them in the ass, so now they are going to overcompensate moving forward.

It sounds completely illogical, which means its probably the truth.

Toom1275 (profile) says:

Ajit Pai and Tom Wheeler agree: The FAA is behaving badly in battle against FCC
FAA fights use of spectrum that’s already deployed safely in dozens of countries.

"ground and airborne aeronautical mobile telemetry systems operate immediately above radio altimeters at power levels comparable to 5G base stations and—for ground stations—with antennas pointed at aircraft," the carriers said. "In fact, the aviation industry’s own Wireless Avionics Intra-Communications (WAIC) systems [are] designed to operate in the very same spectrum as radio altimeters." Those aviation industry systems "would not pass the tests" that the aviation industry used in research that purported to show 5G would interfere with altimeters,"

Upstream (profile) says:

Priorities and motives

It is clear there is some bureaucratic belly bucking going on here, but we need to look at the priorities involved:

What is the relative importance of airliners landing safely at the intended destinations in inclement weather? What would the cost be (and who would pay that cost) to replace the radio altimeters on all the commercial planes that use them (assuming there is another available frequency that will work properly)? What is the relative importance of having this particular band of 5G service in these particular locations? Are there really that many people who need the particular feature set of that band of 5G that close to the approaches to the airports? What is the relative importance of the telecoms holding onto every bit of regulatory capture of the FCC that they have obtained so far, and asserting their power to make the government do as they wish?

Most of those questions could well be the subjects of legitimate debate about needs / costs / benefits / engineering concerns / safety, etc.

The last question, not so much.

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