Rarely has an arcane interagency dispute proved so needlessly disruptive.
On Dec. 5, wireless carriers had expected to begin rolling out 5G, the next standard for cellular networks, on a critical new frequency known as the C-band. The deployment promised increased bandwidth, faster transmissions, wider range, and many new possibilities for wireless devices and apps, potentially turning a useful technology into a transformative one.
Enter the bureaucrats. In November — at the last minute, and after years of detailed planning — the Federal Aviation Administration objected to this process. It warned that emissions from the C-band could interfere with radio altimeters onboard aircraft. It suggested that 5G manufacturers and operators conduct added tests on their equipment and hinted that further "mitigation" measures could be on the way, including flight restrictions in dozens of locations.
On its face, the FAA's concern isn't unreasonable. Altimeters calculate an aircraft's altitude, help pilots land in limited visibility, assist in avoiding midair collisions, and inform numerous other safety systems. The FAA identified 17 onboard functions that could be at risk if an altimeter were subjected to harmful interference. If 5G actually threatened such equipment, the consequences could be dire.
Yet the Federal Communications Commission studied precisely this risk for years before approving the deployment. Some 40 other countries have authorized the use of 5G in the C-band, without a single report of harmful interference. Moreover, the U.S. deployment includes a "guard band" — or empty space between wireless and airplane frequencies — of 220 megahertz, which is up to twice as large as in comparable countries such as Japan.
Six former heads of the FCC said in a recent letter that the FAA's position "threatens to derail the reasoned conclusions reached by the FCC after years of technical analysis and study."
They're right. The FAA's position is based almost entirely on a single technical report that, as wireless groups have pointed out, relies on flawed methodology, implausible assumptions, and extreme testing standards to reach a conclusion that contradicts years of careful study by regulators and industry stakeholders.
More to the point: Real-world data from across the globe yields no evidence of a significant threat. In an effort to ease this impasse, trade groups from the telecoms and aviation industries have agreed to share data. The FAA and FCC insist that they're working together as well.
An agreement of some kind — such as imposing modest restrictions on 5G operations near airports, as some countries have done — should hopefully allow wireless carriers to deploy the technology without being accused of putting lives at risk.
However the dispute is resolved, two further lessons stand out. One is the damage caused by regulatory uncertainty. A month's delay might be no big deal. But further setbacks could impede companies making 5G-capable devices, producing connected vehicles, building smart infrastructure, installing cell sites, and much more.
Consumer and business applications that depend on a more powerful network and increased capacity could be put on hold, undermining the broader digital economy. Delaying deployment by a year could reduce economic growth by some $50 billion, according to the wireless industry.
This incident also amounts to a management failure by President Joe Biden's administration. Such a consequential dispute between executive agencies should never have gotten to this point. Unfortunately, both the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (which is supposed to oversee federal spectrum policy) and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (which resolves interagency clashes) still lack permanent leadership.
By one estimate, 5G could add $1.5 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product and create some 4.5 million jobs. Those gains, as well as future innovations, are being jeopardized by a regulatory turf war. The sooner it ends, the better.