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Lawmakers take federal regulators to task over 5G interference debacle

FAA head Steve Dickson and aviation industry reps blame a broken process for the standoff over 5G interference with airplane altimeters.

The dome atop the US Capitol
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Lawmakers bashed federal agencies Thursday over the chaotic rollout of 5G wireless services earlier this year, accusing them of failing to communicate about potential aviation safety concerns. 

The criticism came during a House aviation subcommittee hearing where Steve Dickson, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, and trade group representatives of the airline and wireless industries testified about the standoff that resulted in a delayed rollout of 5G in January and in several canceled flights.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called the hearing because of an ongoing clash involving the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission, along with the aviation and wireless industries they regulate, over the deployment of 5G using the newly acquired C-band wireless spectrum. 

The hearing was streamed live on the House Transportation Committee's website. 

Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, criticized the FCC for approving the sale of C-band spectrum to wireless carriers last year without seriously considering concerns from FAA officials, who are tasked with regulating the safety of air travel in the US. 

"It's a pattern of ignoring consequences beyond the consequences to the profitability of the telecom industry; that's their only focus," DeFazio said of the FCC. The agency's chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, had been invited to testify but didn't attend, citing a scheduling conflict.

"Having a dropped call is way less serious than having a dropped airline out of the sky," DeFazio added.

Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana, who's the aviation subcommittee's ranking member, accused the FAA and FCC of "playing chicken with each other." He called the interagency standoff "embarrassing, ridiculous and inexcusable." He said it all could've been avoided had the agencies communicated better with each other from the start.

"We already have enough uncertainty related to schedules and weather and other things that we don't need to create our own problems further disrupting or creating uncertainty in airline travel," he said.

Who's to blame?

Though most of the public started hearing about 5G interference concerns only at the end of last year when the FAA issued its first public warning, the dispute has roots that go back more than a decade. For years, the FAA and the aviation industry have worried about whether C-band 5G signals could interfere with airplane altimeters. Their fear is that any disruption to the altimeters, which pilots rely on during low-visibility landings to know how close they are to the ground, could lead to a crash. 

The FCC, which regulates the nation's airwaves, disagrees with the assessment of the risk by the FAA and the aviation industry. It says the evidence shows there's no harmful interference between 5G using C-band and the vast majority of altimeters used in planes. Still, AT&T and Verizon agreed to voluntary measures to mitigate possible concerns. 

The clash between the two sides came to a head on Jan. 16, just days before AT&T and Verizon were set to turn on their C-band 5G services. Despite two delays and voluntary agreements from the wireless carriers to alter their deployment plans, the FAA began issuing warnings regarding the 5G interference near airports, and airlines started canceling flights.

The FAA has addressed the situation by issuing notices and directives to commercial airline pilots and requiring them to have alternate means of landing in low-visibility situations. So far the agency has cleared 90% of commercial aircraft flying in the US to operate at airports where 5G C-Band transmitters are deployed.

The very public disagreement between the federal agencies that played out over the past two months shone a bright light on the dysfunction that exists within the government's process for repurposing valuable wireless spectrum for new services. Lawmakers during the hearing wanted to know why the FCC and FAA had failed to coordinate in the years leading up to 5G deployment. 

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, who testified first, acknowledged the issue should've been handled differently. 

"I think everyone realizes the process didn't serve anyone well," he said. But he acknowledged his agency is working cooperatively with the wireless industry to resolve concerns. 

Dickson said that for more than a year, the FAA had asked the FCC for more information to assess the effects of 5G on its altimeters. But it was only within the past few months, once the FAA engaged directly with wireless carriers, that it was able to get the information it needed, such as specific 5G tower locations and transmission power levels. 

"As it turns out, the FCC didn't even have the data that we needed," Dickson said. "We discovered that when we started to work directly with the telecommunications companies. They never had to provide this to the government."

Dickson said the FAA is working to develop new standards that'll require airlines to upgrade or replace older airplane instruments that are disrupted by 5G signals. 

An ongoing problem

Though the FAA says it's working toward a permanent resolution, lawmakers and airline officials who testified at the hearing noted that the situation is still problematic. The temporary restrictions the wireless carriers have agreed to will expire in six months and the current practice of issuing warnings and requiring alternate landing patterns for certain situations is unsustainable for long term practice, especially as carriers continue to turn on more 5G service throughout the country.

As a result, airline flight crews have been forced to sift through new FAA restrictions that vary by different runways even at the same airport, requiring pilots to perform extensive work-arounds.

"This is no way to run a railroad," Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said in his testimony. "And it's certainly no way to operate the world's safest air transportation system."

Lawmakers and aviation industry representatives urged regulators to come up with a permanent solution to allow 5G service without sacrificing passenger safety. 

"The truth of the matter is that both of our industries have been thrust into this avoidable economic calamity by a government process that failed," Nicholas Calio, president of the Airlines for America trade group, said in his testimony at the hearing.

Faye Malarkey Black, who heads the Regional Airline Association, complained that smaller regional airlines haven't received as many FAA clearances, which has put them at greater risk of canceling flights when bad weather occurs. 

"Leaving dozens of airports and millions of passengers vulnerable to sweeping disruptions is unsustainable and unacceptable," she said. 

Communication breakdown

The consensus among lawmakers and all those testifying was that there was a breakdown in communication among federal agencies. 

But where or how that breakdown occurred is still unclear. While some lawmakers blamed the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which represents the president on spectrum issues, for ignoring the FAA, Meredith Atwell Baker, CEO of the CTIA wireless industry trade group and a former FCC commissioner and NTIA official, said the agencies have historically worked very well together "on really hairy spectrum issues" to free up commercial and federal spectrum. She said that in her experience the interagency process has always been able to work out "multiple, really complex deals."

"This was auction number 107," she said. "And I've never seen anything like this before. So I would say this is an anomaly."

She said what this situation illustrates is that "we need to get the agency input early and let the spectrum engineers do their job because this is an engineering issue."