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The C-band delay in 5G is impressively stupid

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said he's talking directly to AT&T and Verizon about their plan to deploy 5G services in their midband C-band spectrum licenses starting in January.

"We are having very productive discussions and we will figure this out," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said at an event in Washington, according to Reuters. However, Dickson said the FAA is still concerned that 5G operations in C-band spectrum could interfere with some aircraft radio altimeters.

Dickson said it remains to be seen what mitigations, including possible adjustments to deployment or actions that might need to be taken from within the aviation sector, will look like.

Better late than never, I guess?

The truth is that Dickson and his peers at the NTIA and FCC have taken 5G regulatory mismanagement and procrastination to new levels that can only be described as impressively stupid.

Waiting until the last minute

As some industry experts have pointed out, the topic of wireless operations in C-band spectrum has been around since 2012. Moreover, the FCC outlined its specific plans to auction the C-band for 5G in the early part of 2020. So why is the FAA only now having "very productive discussions" on a topic that obviously should have been addressed before AT&T, Verizon and others collectively spent around $100 billion on C-band spectrum licenses for 5G?

As with anything in Washington, I suspect there's plenty of blame to go around. But there have been a number of clear missteps. For example, according to The Wall Street Journal, the FAA's first warnings on the topic last year weren't filed into the FCC's public comment system so that others could see them.

Regardless, what did the FCC do about those warnings? I'm not sure, but it appears the agency is scrambling to address them now. For example, executives from altimeter maker Garmin met with FCC officials just last week to discuss the results of the interference tests they conducted. Shouldn't that meeting have happened earlier? Like, maybe, before the FCC auctioned off the C-band for 5G?

And what about the NTIA? That's the government agency specifically charged with coordinating spectrum usage among federal agencies. "Career NTIA engineers concluded that FAA's data failed to demonstrate a serious threat, and the determination was made to move forward with the auctions after consultation with Commerce [Department] officials at the highest level and White House staff," Adam Candeub, the NTIA's former acting chief, told the WSJ.

Except, that apparently didn't settle the matter. If it had, AT&T and Verizon wouldn't have agreed to delay the rollout of their midband 5G networks in C-band spectrum.

Government mismanagement?!? I'm shocked!

Broadly, the dustup involving potential interference between radio altimeters and 5G reflects ongoing dysfunction inside the US government. Of course, federal ineptitude is nothing new for just about any representative government. But, in the 5G industry, it has certainly come into focus during the past few years. For example:

  • The top official for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2019 warned that 5G in the 24GHz band would interfere with weather forecasts.
  • The FCC in 2020 recommended changes to vehicle-to-vehicle communications that ran against recommendations from the US Department of Transportation.
  • After more than a decade of debate over the issue, Ligado is still facing concerns that transmissions in its L-band spectrum licenses might interfere with GPS signals.
  • Finally, former President Trump recently acknowledged having a "lengthy discussion" in the Oval Office regarding a plan by startup Rivada for the government to offer wholesale 5G.

Some of these issues can be attributed to the chaotic management style employed by the Trump administration. But they have been clearly exacerbated by the Biden administration's historic delay in nominating leadership to agencies, including the NTIA and FCC.

And though Acting FCC Chief Jessica Roscenworsal had her Senate nomination hearing this week, Biden's NTIA nominee, Alan Davidson, still has not been put onto the Senate's calendar.

A swift delay

For Verizon – the company that is primarily affected by the ongoing debate over C-band interference – the issue is serious. Verizon risks losing its 5G footing to T-Mobile, which already covers 200 million people with similar midband spectrum.

As a result, Verizon officials are working to assuage investors.

"All the groups are working together to get this resolved as quickly as possible," Verizon CFO Matt Ellis said Wednesday during an investor event. He said that he does not anticipate any more delays beyond the 30-day pause Verizon has already announced. "We just need to go through a little bit of a process."

And Ellis hinted that Verizon might have a major marketing push planned for its eventual C-band network launch. "There's a lot of good thought that has gone into that," he said.

Regulators, too, are hoping to avoid similar issues in the future. "We need a whole-of-government approach to this," Rosenworcel said during her Senate hearing, in response to questions over inter-agency spectrum coordination. She added that the NTIA needs the ability to speak with "authority" on such topics.

And, broadly, the financial analysts at Raymond James don't expect the C-band interference issue to stretch on too long. "We feel the C-band situation will be resolved quickly and not be a major risk to 5G network deployments," they wrote in a note to investors this week.

But, already, some commentators are employing dramatic political rhetoric on the topic of C-band interference. "Left unchecked, the FAA's position on 5G could pose a direct threat to US national security," retired US Army General Bob Dees wrote in a recent opinion post. "Allowing China to deploy robust 5G infrastructure before we do in the US could leave our nation vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks on everything from combat operations to the electric grid, communications and transportation networks, and other essential public services."

Notably, Dees' post appeared under the "race to 5G" headline, a bit of hyperbole that has been used for years to further various political agendas. It's re-emergence in the C-band debate again underscores the impressive stupidity surrounding the whole issue.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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