FAA is at blame for last-minute C-band concerns — Webb

William Webb

The aeronautical industry is critical to our way of life and has built an admirable safety record. To fly safely and cost-effectively requires access to radio spectrum for radar, altimeters, voice communications and more. But the recent announcement that AT&T and Verizon will delay their 5G deployment by a month to give the aeronautical industry more time to sort interference concerns suggests that the U.S. aviation industry is an irresponsible spectrum user.

There is an enormous amount of spectrum allocated to the aeronautical industry. In the bands that lie in and around various mobile spectrum used for 4G and 5G the aeronautical industry has about 1GHz of spectrum – that’s about the same as all the mobile operators put together in most countries. To put this into perspective, the recent U.S. C-band auction saw operators pay $82 billion for about a quarter of the amount of spectrum held for aeronautical, suggesting a value of aeronautical spectrum of over $0.3 trillion in the U.S. alone. Above and below these bands are many other aeronautical applications. In most countries, the aviation industry gets to access this spectrum for free.

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That aviation controls and clings onto so much spectrum, denying access to other valuable applications, is bad enough. Worse yet, the industry has a history of implementing poor quality receivers, likely in an effort to reduce its costs (while increasing those for other spectrum users), preventing use in adjacent bands until other parties implement costly mitigations. This recent blockade by the FAA on 5G is just the latest example. The industry hoisted the same gambit in the U.K. with poor quality radars.

There is no excuse for this. Bands up to 4.2 GHz for mobile were suggested at international spectrum conferences in 2007 and solidified in 2015. Of course, poor quality aeronautical receivers should never have been allowed in the first place given both the safely concerns and inefficient spectrum use. The aviation industry had had more the six years to resolve this problem but has sat on its hands. And it is far from clear that there really is a problem – these bands are in use in other countries without any observed interference, there is no scientific reason why interference should be a U.S.-only problem.

Presently the aviation industry is demanding that the mobile industry — and therefore all of us who use mobile devices — suffer delays and cost increases from their lax regulation. The fault is clearly with the FAA and other aeronautical regulators, and they should act immediately to upgrade systems on all planes and helicopters with inferior altimeters and ground them during this process if necessary. That would be fair and focus minds on resolving the problem in a timely manner. It would also set a suitable precedent for the future to encourage addressing interference proactively.

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More broadly, the industry has been using the same types of radars and other wireless devices for decades, while other applications have dramatically improved spectrum efficiency. Mobile cellular has become about 50 times more efficient during this period. Radar is also more efficient. If the aviation industry was a good spectrum steward, it would upgrade and return the underused spectrum back to the public for modern uses. Clearly the aviation industry forgot its promise that the free use of the airwaves entailed sharing it with other socially valuable services.

The status quo in which the aviation industry gets valuable spectrum bands plus the power to veto services outside its domain is not delivering a socially optimal outcome. Policymakers could consider independent approval of all relevant standards for aeronautical radio equipment, including altimeters, by radio experts outside of the aeronautical industry; and more generally an independent international aviation spectrum council to ensure national aviation authorities adopt best practice standards for spectrum use and efficiency. In the short term, we should get on with 5G deployment, as the cost of delay is significant, and if the aeronautical industry has safety concerns it should address them before allowing the affected aircraft to fly.

William Webb is former Director at Ofcom where he managed a team providing technical advice and performing research across all areas of Ofcom’s regulatory remit and led Ofcom’s Spectrum Framework Review.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.