Lawmakers set to hear from aviation on C-band
As the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prepares to testify before a Feb. 3 U.S. House of Representatives hearing on C-band 5G deployments, some folks at the FCC are waiting for an invitation.
In a statement, the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), said the federal government, airlines, manufacturers, the telecommunications industry and airports must “all work together on a thoughtful, strategic” deployment of 5G technologies. “All interested parties must come together to address these impacts and implement long-term solutions that will increase safety and reduce disruptions for affected airports.”
DeFazio previously sided with Airlines for America, a trade group representing passenger and cargo airlines, calling for C-band delays.
As of Thursday, the agenda for participants in the hearing included the head of Airlines for America and the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents airplane manufacturers, according to Reuters.
In a conference call with reporters after the FCC’s open meeting on Thursday, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, confirmed that he had not been invited, but he’d welcome the opportunity to testify.
“I certainly think ‘all interested parties’ should include the FCC. After all, it is the FCC C-band order” that governed the buildout and use of this spectrum. “I think someone from the FCC should be there because I think it’s important that all the agencies that are involved here have an opportunity to address the issues within their expertise.”
The FCC in 2020 voted for wireless carriers to use the C-band 3.7 GHz spectrum for 5G and later raised more than $81 billion in an auction licensing the airwaves. Verizon and AT&T bought the bulk of those licenses, and they were the ones who agreed to twice delay their C-band rollouts due to aviation concerns. Last week, they again agreed to buffer zones around airports to satisfy aviation concerns about potential interference with radio altimeters that are used to operate planes.
Whatever one thinks of the particulars of the deal, “it’s not great that this process got so off the rails so late in the process,” Carr said. There’s a reason that Congress gave the FCC, the expert agency on spectrum, the ability to make the call as to whether there’s harmful interference or not, and back in 2020, the agency addressed the altimeter concerns and reached a decision.
Now very late in the process, there’s essentially a modified wireless framework put in place behind closed doors at the White House and “I’m still not familiar with the details,” he said. Some reports have identified a 2-mile buffer zone and some say the FAA has identified sites that are up to 5 miles away from airports. “I don’t know the current state of play,” in terms of the rules governing the operation of C-band, and as an FCC commissioner, that’s not a great thing, he said.
The whole situation creates uncertainty for bidders in future spectrum auctions because now when they get their licenses, “we’ve now seen a process in which you get that license from the FCC, and you can’t operate pursuant to the parameters” of that FCC license. “You might have to deal with the White House over the weekend” behind closed doors. “I think that’s a negative sign,” he said, noting “tough spectrum decisions” to come in the lower 3 GHz band where the Department of Defense (DoD) operates.
To some extent, this isn’t new, as it came up with the 5.9 GHz band and the Department of Transportation, as well as the 24 GHz with NOAH weather radar and with Ligado and the DoD, he said. It’s the idea that agencies that are not happy with the “balls and strikes” called by the FCC and then challenge the decision
Separately, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, kept to the script when asked about the topic during a call with reporters on Thursday, reiterating that she’s optimistic 5G deployments can co-exist with aviation safety technologies in the U.S. just as it does in other countries around the world. “We will continue to work with our counterparts at the Department of Transportation and the FAA” to continue to make sure that takes place, she said.
Asked whether she has concerns that the C-band brouhaha will depress action by future bidders as a result of what companies like AT&T and Verizon experienced, “I believe auction bidders need certainty,” she said. “They need to know that they’re going to be able to put the spectrum they’ve acquired” to use to build the kind of wireless innovations that have made U.S. spectrum policies a model for the world. “That certainty is important,” she said. “We’ll have to make sure going forward that we continue to guarantee it when we auction” the airwaves.
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Interestingly, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, questioned in a blog last week why the FAA or one of the airlines didn’t go to court to challenge the FCC’s 2020 decision. (Spoiler alert: He blames the Trump White House for letting this happen.)
“There is hardly a major decision of the FCC that doesn’t end up in court,” he wrote. “If this was such a safety risk, and the FAA was being ignored, why did not it make that complaint to a court of competent jurisdiction?”
That didn’t happen, and a lot of folks are still questioning why the FAA and airlines waited until the 11th hour to complain about potential C-band impact on outdated radio altimeters that pilots use in the operation of planes.
Asked earlier this week if he’s seen anything of this magnitude, Wheeler told Fierce: “When you define ‘this magnitude’ as threatening to shut down major arteries of commerce, no.”
He politely declined to give any advice to the current chair of the FCC.