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Regulatory Fiasco: FAA and FCC Feud Over 5G

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Image: Sorrorwoot Chaiyawong - Alamy Stock Photo
I hadn’t planned to write about the regulatory spat between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) surrounding the C-band radio spectrum, but here we are. The reason I’d mostly ignored it was because I assumed there was nothing to talk about, and it would all blow over in a week or two because the issues were cut and dry. However, my optimism ignored the potential impact of political forces.
The heart of the issue is the wireless carriers’ right to use the C-Band frequencies (i.e., 3.7 G to 3.98 GHz) they purchased from the FCC for some $80 billion; Verizon was the biggest buyer spending $45.5 billion, and AT&T spent $23.4 billion. T-Mobile has largely been absent from this fracas since it already had a significant stash of mid-band spectrum in the 2.5 GHz range, which had no such interference issues; this is a spectrum that Sprint acquired with its purchase of Nextel Communications in 2004.
C-band is classed as mid-band spectrum and prized for its ability to deliver significant raw capacity (i.e., radio spectrum) while covering relatively large areas. The mid-band (1 GHz to 6 GHz) is one of two major swaths of the spectrum to be opened up with the advent of 5G, the other being millimeter-wave (i.e., ≥20 GHz) band. However, the millimeter wave’s short transmission range (e.g., a few hundred meters) is only suitable for high-density hotspot coverage.
How The Story Unfolded
T-Mobile has launched its 2.5 GHz spectrum online, which contributed to the carrier’s strong showings in recent 5G performance ratings. Those performance ratings play a role in T-Mobile’s marketing campaigns, so you could see why Verizon and AT&T would be anxious to put their new mid-band assets into production carrying traffic—a feeling their stockholders would share.
The initial date to activate C-band channels was December 5, 2021. But roughly a month before, the FAA issued a warning over potential interference with aircraft safety systems, particularly radio altimeters that operate at 4.2 GHz. AT&T and Verizon (reluctantly) agreed to postpone the turn up until January 5, 2022 (later pushed back to January 19) and limit the use of C-band channels near airports.
Some airlines canceled flights over the issue. But the carriers were eventually given the green light to start using the C-band. Verizon and AT&T have both voluntarily agreed to limit deployments near certain airports. In the end, everyone appears to be satisfied—though I’m sure the carriers would prefer to have unfettered access to those vital radio channels for which they paid many billions.
Who’s At Fault Here?
The FAA, plain and simple. Why? Because the law says so. The law in question is the Communications Act of 1934, which established the FCC and put it in charge of regulating the use of the radio spectrum in the U.S. That responsibility also entails laying out, in copious detail, the power levels, allowable sidelobe energy (i.e., the interference generated outside the band), and a host of other parameters to ensure non-interfering operability of all radio systems. So legally, if the FCC says it’s safe, our government says it’s safe.
For clarity, an FCC decision isn’t some arbitrary, flip-a-coin type of opinion. The FCC is “world-class” at doing this type of thing. While the FAA and their compadres responded with alarm to the “C-band crisis” in November 2021, they responded to an FCC decision rendered in March 2020—a year and a half before the crisis announcement. However, the formal approval process began years earlier.
Over the past several years, the FCC has been busy reassigning underutilized portions of the radio spectrum to new purposes, including the mobile carriers, new satellite providers, and of course, unlicensed spectrum for technologies like Wi-Fi. The C-band we’re talking about was (originally) the downlink for early geosynchronous satellite systems. I worked with those back in the 1970s.
Some have wondered why it seems to take years before the newly reassigned spectrum becomes available. The reason is the FCC’s engineers need time to study the potential impact (including interference with applications in adjacent bands) and develop the rules by which users of this new spectrum will have to abide. That development includes a whole process for submitting comments from affected parties—like the FAA.
While the FCC published its final regulations governing the C-band in 2020, the development of those regulations started back in 2015. And little in these rules comes as any big surprise as the considerable discussion will regard any major points of contention. That’d be when they should have been talking about requirements for older radio altimeters, not a month before the carriers’ $80 billion investment is about to go live.
Anyone who can read between the lines should know that I am no fan of excessive government regulation. However, with something as important as regulating the proper use of the radio spectrum, this is an area where the government must be in charge of making the rules. And frankly, the FCC has been doing a good job.
How do we know the process works? The wireless industry is thriving! It’s no secret that once consumers got a taste for mobility, they wanted more, and the FCC has delivered. They repurposed and freed up enormous amounts of the radio spectrum and, in each case, went through this same rigorous rule-making process to ensure that products designed for it would work and with few (if any) interference problems. The result is that businesses are willing to invest in developing wireless products because they know if they follow the FCC requirements in design, their products will work—and they won’t be spending excessive amounts arguing about these issues in court.
What Was All of This Scuffle About?
Frankly, I have no idea. I do know the FAA can count on good PR any time they raise an issue of airline safety, given the number of people who harbor some fear of flying, so this is pretty much a no-lose situation for the FAA. But where were they in the years before when all of this stuff was being adjudicated? I mean, a major safety consideration slips through a multiyear FCC review process and nobody in the whole airline industry raises a hand?
As I watched this story unfold on the evening news, the only person I didn’t hear from was the new Chairman of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel. Ms. Rosenworcel has been a member of the Commission since 2012, and I assume she’s had some exposure to what her agency does. How about standing up for your people? Her silence has portrayed our industry as a bunch of money-grubbing plane crashers.
Wall Street Journal editorial on this matter concluded, “Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg rolled FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, who has supported the carriers’ 5G rollout behind the scenes. And now he and Mr. Biden are portraying their blundering as a diplomatic victory. This administration needs less political spin and more competent governance.” That sounds like a pretty good wrap-up to me.
Join me during my session, Mobility Update: Sizing Up 5G (and Alternatives) in the Real World at Enterprise Connect 2022 in March, for more information on how cellular carriers' 5G service has dominated the mobile conversation and ongoing updates.

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This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.