Tuning to the Same Frequency on Spectrum

The chaotic rollout of the 5G broadband network in January 2022 was a global embarrassment for the United States. Recall, that telecommunication companies purchased part of the spectrum and wanted to roll out 5G services using these frequencies. However, the aviation industry was fearful of potential interference that could create significant delays for passenger and freight aircraft. With safety and billions of dollars at stake, the telecommunication and aviation sectors came to an eleventh-hour compromise and the wireless technology companies agreed to temporarily halt service in 5G towers near airports and worked with the aviation stakeholders on a modified rollout.

While the immediate crisis was averted, it exposed critical and interrelated gaps and failures in the process and policies used for efficiently allocating spectrum. The nation needs to develop improved processes to avoid such a conflict in the future, not to seek to assign blame for the failures of the past.

It is against this backdrop that Eno and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation—the leading think tank for science and technology policy—teamed up on an initiative to inform future spectrum allocations. Our two independent, nonprofit organizations created a joint advisory group consisting of aviation and wireless spectrum experts, as well as those deeply familiar with federal spectrum allocation procedures. This group informed the research, evaluation, and development of specific, actionable recommendations to improve the process and avoid conflicts in the future. That report was released earlier this week.

It wasn’t always easy. Part of the reason for the breakdown in the process had to do with the differing cultures and priorities of the relevant federal agencies.

Those outside federal Washington may think government agencies operate more or less in alignment. However, in this case, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent agency and has broad authority to allocate spectrum. The FCC is overseen by Congress but its commissioners are not subject to direction or termination by the president. On the other hand, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation and laser focused on ensuring safety across the U.S. aerospace system. The difference in departmental ethos is dramatic: while the FCC’s approach is that 5G is safe until proved otherwise, the FAA maintains that because it has the potential to interfere with aircraft altimeters, the technology is unsafe for use until 5G is absolutely proven that there is no interference.

Despite this seemingly intractable conflict, the system for allocating spectrum is not irreparably broken, but targeted reforms are needed to improve relationships, communication, expertise at the agencies, and the technological capabilities of devices. After all, this will not be the last time the FCC and FAA deal with these issues, and spectrum allocation and interference with safety-critical systems can happen with any mode of transportation. The report makes four key recommendations:

  1. Agencies and standards-setting organizations should look to improve spectrum-using devices’ resiliency to interference.
  2. The federal government should invest in personnel that can properly operate and lead complex spectrum allocation processes.
  3. Final decisions on spectrum allocation need to be established based on clear testing, data, and definitions.
  4. The federal government should clarify and enforce jurisdictions and areas of expertise within the spectrum allocation process.

The confrontation between government agencies and the aviation and wireless industries unnecessarily pitted public policy priorities for safety and technology against each other. An improved process to avoid such a conflict in the future is needed; the Eno-ITIF partnership was designed to leverage the expertise of both industries in both the public and private sectors to recommend improvements that are highly-scrutinized and implementable.

By engaging in a productive dialogue between industry experts, better understanding the problem, and identifying critical gaps, Eno and ITIF were able to develop policy recommendations for device performance, personnel, data and testing standards, and agency jurisdictions. The hearings and negotiations regarding the upcoming reauthorization of the federal aviation law and potential updates to the Communications Act present an opportunity to put these recommendations into practice.

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