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January 4, 2022
The end of the Great C-band Debate appears to be in sight.
Late Monday, AT&T and Verizon agreed to another 5G C-band launch delay, this time for two weeks. That delay, according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson, "will give us additional time and space to reduce the impacts to commercial flights."
According to Reuters, Dickson and US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are promising that this is the last delay, and that AT&T and Verizon will be able to launch their 5G operations in midband C-band spectrum later this month – barring any "unforeseen aviation safety issues."
In a statement released Tuesday, President Biden praised the development.
"Last night's agreement is a significant step in the right direction, and we're grateful to all parties for their cooperation and good faith," he said. "This agreement ensures that there will be no disruptions to air operations over the next two weeks and puts us on track to substantially reduce disruptions to air operations when AT&T and Verizon launch 5G on January 19."
Figure 1: Joe Biden speaking with supporters at a phone bank at his presidential campaign office in Des Moines, Iowa, in January 2020.
(Source: Gage Skidmore | Biden campaign)
But the truth is that the Great C-band Debate represents a big black eye for everyone.
First and foremost, it's outrageous that the airline industry waited this long to raise concerns over whether 5G operations in C-band spectrum might affect aircraft radio altimeters. The FCC loudly discussed the C-band for more than a year before developing rules to auction the spectrum for 5G. That auction ended early last year. That was the time for the FAA and others to raise any interference concerns.
But that's just where the blame starts. The NTIA is the government agency specifically charged with coordinating spectrum usage among federal agencies. Meaning, it should have worked with the FAA and the FCC to address this topic well before Verizon, AT&T and others bid $81 billion for C-band licenses for 5G.
Finally, the blame now also rests at the feet of AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg. On New Year's Eve, these two executives received a personal appeal from two of the most prominent members of the US government to delay their companies' respective 5G launches. Further, the request wasn't open-ended: It was for just two weeks. And the purpose of the request wasn't insignificant: It involved the safety of commercial airplanes.
And what did Stankey and Vestberg do? They basically said "go screw yourself." They decided that their planned launch of a slightly faster 5G network was more important than federal concerns over aviation safety. (Thankfully, a day later they changed their minds.)
Stopping the buck
Now, I realize that there are lots of technical arguments involved in this whole debate. I have no doubt those arguments will be discussed and, ultimately, resolved. The problem here is with the process: The US government shouldn't need to beg wireless industry executives to address potential interference with airline operations.
I realize President Biden has a lot on his plate. But he acknowledged during another blunder last year that "the buck stops with me." And indeed it does. And now it's time for Biden to get it together in 5G.
A year into the Biden administration, "there is no spectrum plan, there are no big auctions planned, at a time when everyone was all about 'we've got to beat China on the race to 5G,'" former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell told Consumer Electronics Daily.
And it's true. Biden dragged his feet in appointing leadership to the FCC and NTIA. And now his first major statement on 5G specifically involves thanking the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon for not launching services.
To be clear, Biden still has another three years, at least, to straighten things out. And it's fair to say that he did not inherit a fully functioning government, particularly in the realm of spectrum management.
(It's worth noting that Ajit Pai, Trump's FCC chief, recently told S&P Global Market Intelligence that ongoing spectrum-interference debates are "commonplace" and represent "an institutional feature of our government and the one that needs to be addressed in a forthright way.")
Regardless, as a new year dawns, it's time for Biden to exercise his management chops and bring some order and vision to federal policies around 5G and 6G. That includes developing broadband maps, a spectrum inventory and a clear plan for future spectrum allocation. Whether that spectrum allocation involves auctions or sharing technologies remains to be seen. But now is the time to make those kinds of decisions.
Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading
Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.
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