The latest in a long line of concerns about the radio interference that 5G service rollouts might cause involved airline security – what effect, if any, the faster, more reliable service would have on airline altimeter signals. As a result, scheduled 5G service to more than 100 million cellular users was postponed until Jan. 19. 

In a word, the issue is spectrum – the range of invisible airwaves shared by various technologies. While the technological possibilities of 5G abound – from autonomous vehicles to smart cities and factories, which could make labor safer and more efficient – more effective governance of the spectrum is the key to realizing the potential.

Why We Wrote This

5G service promises greater connectivity and opportunities for automation. A newly confirmed federal referee is a step toward making that happen by resolving tensions between the airline industry and phone companies.

Part of the answer, says Tom Wheeler, former chair of the Federal Communications Commission, is an interagency referee – a permanent position vacant since 2019 that was filled this week by the Senate confirmation of President Joe Biden’s nominee, Alan Davidson. He will head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Department of Commerce.

Mr. Wheeler calls spectrum coordination a “whole-of-government activity,” noting that the Trump administration never delivered on a spectrum strategy. And the Biden administration has not yet, either. “The whole of government comes to a point at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

Washington

For all the promise of making cellular service faster and more reliable, 5G – fifth generation – networks have been repeatedly tangled and delayed over issues with the airwaves on which the technology relies.

The latest controversy, postponing a Jan. 5 rollout of 5G service for over 100 million users, had to do with regulatory disputes between federal communications and transportation agencies about whether 5G signals might interfere with equipment used to help land airplanes.

Experts say this week’s Senate confirmation of a federal communications and information “referee” between all agencies, after a multiyear vacancy, may smooth coordination.

Why We Wrote This

5G service promises greater connectivity and opportunities for automation. A newly confirmed federal referee is a step toward making that happen by resolving tensions between the airline industry and phone companies.

What caused the controversy?

In a word, spectrum – the range of invisible airwaves shared by various technologies.

The airline industry questioned whether the bands of the spectrum used by the companies for new 5G service scheduled to start Jan. 5 would interfere with those used by airlines for radio altimeters.

The issue had been brewing for months. A November article – “Will 5G mean airplanes falling from the sky?” – by Tom Wheeler, former chair of the Federal Communications Commission, concluded that more cooperation between industries was necessary. It’s an approach that helped solve earlier questions about signal interference with hearing aids, pacemakers, and electric wheelchairs.

Altimeter interference is a “valid” concern, says Monisha Ghosh, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame, who worked as chief technology officer at the FCC until last June, but she adds that tests in other countries where 5G has been deployed did not show evidence of interference.

A letter from airline executives to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also questioned whether 5G would cause interference with air travel. Mr. Buttigieg, bypassing FCC jurisdiction, directly asked Verizon and AT&T to delay deployment. The companies obliged, resetting rollout to Jan. 19.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported last week that 50 U.S. airports will have buffer zones shielding altimeter equipment by this rollout date.

The solution to such controversies comes down to process, says Joe Kane, who studies spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “This is something that should be going on between engineers figuring out how to make things work.”

That process is all the more important since many more 5G deployments are scheduled in 2022-23.

Frédéric Scheiber/Hans Lucas/Reuters/File

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is studying the use of 5G for remote working. Engineers at the company’s St. Martin du Touch, France, flight lab work in an Airbus A350-900 test aircraft in January 2021.

What exactly is 5G?

“Never has a term been used so much and understood so little as 5G,” says former FCC chair Wheeler, now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. 5G, he says, is a technical standard that the public confuses for a product, such as a phone. Cellular provider marketing, he says, advertises 5G service when it isn’t widely available yet and consumers are still just using 4G.

5G operates on parts of the radio spectrum different from 4G’s in order to increase capacity and speed. But, says Mr. Wheeler,  “consumers are going to see faster speeds … but if that is all that 5G delivers, it will be a disappointment” because it should open up opportunities for new apps not even conceived yet.

So what is the promise of 5G?

While the technological possibilities of 5G abound – from autonomous vehicles to smart cities and factories, which could make labor safer and more efficient – more effective governance of the spectrum is the key to realizing its potential.

Part of the answer, says Mr. Wheeler, is an interagency referee – a permanent position vacant since 2019 that was filled this week by the Senate confirmation of President Joe Biden’s nominee, Alan Davidson. He will head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Department of Commerce.

“That’s where all this refereeing is supposed to take place,” says the former FCC chair.   

Mr. Wheeler calls spectrum coordination a “whole-of-government activity,” noting that the Trump administration never delivered on a spectrum strategy. And the Biden administration has not yet, either. “The whole of government comes to a point at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *