We've been hearing for a long time about how much the fifth generation of wireless service will speed up and smooth out our internet-dependent lives, and now the moment has …
… not completely arrived.
But it is quite a mess.
Overseas airlines with flights heading to this country canceled some of them on Wednesday or changed the type of planes they were flying because of uncertainty surrounding the rollout. U.S. airlines and shipping companies have warned for weeks that use of the new 5G spectrum near airports could cause "catastrophic disruption," not just to personal and business travel but also to supply chains.
This despite the fact that AT&T and Verizon, which were ready to flip the 5G switch in many cities on Wednesday, agreed not to do so near key airports, after having already delayed the general rollout twice before in recent weeks under pressure from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Department.
And all that despite the fact that the mobile providers got permission from the Federal Communications Commission two years ago to use the slice of radio frequency known as the C-band and spent tens of billion of dollars in a government auction to acquire it.
Attribute it to the inefficiency of government agencies. Or to living in a nation that can make wild ideological swings when it changes presidents — the FCC's approval came under the regulation-averse Trump administration, and the FAA's objections under the regulation-amicable Biden administration.
But, mostly, attribute it to a willingness to err on the side of caution if there's a chance an airplane might crash.
The concern? That strong signals on the C-band will interfere with equipment on certain planes that tells pilots how close they are to the ground. That's especially important during bad weather. The portion of the spectrum used for 5G is adjacent to the frequencies used by altimeters — close enough for a spillover of transmissions that not all of them can filter out.
The mobile providers argue that there's enough of a buffer, and the FCC had seemed to agree. The providers also argue that the air industry had plenty of time to prepare and that 5G has been successfully implemented overseas, though airlines and pilots are worried about technical differences in how the equipment will be used in this country. The FAA has warned that flights will be restricted during low-visibility conditions after the 5G rollout.
The Twin Cities area at large is not among the eight places where AT&T is immediately enhancing 5G service. A Verizon map listed Minneapolis and St. Paul as "5G Ultra Wideband cities" and promised "updates soon." Patrick Hogan, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Airports Commission told an editorial writer Wednesday that while between 2 and 3% of aircraft operations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport occur under low-visibility conditions, travelers could experience the ripple effect of delays elsewhere. MSP is a diversion airport for Chicago.
There's actually not that much at stake for mobile customers. Many already have access to some form of 5G — though the C-band offers a juicier version of it — and they'll continue to see service improve except near airports (where, granted, it would come in handy).
The delays pose greater difficulties for the mobile providers, which not only want to realize a return on their investment but also must meet demand as they shut down older generations of technology.
Resolution of the issue is a good test for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a fast-rising Democratic star who is considered a prospect in 2024 if President Joe Biden doesn't seek re-election. Buttigieg is touted for his quick mind and elegant communication, but his navigation of a situation where legitimate interests are in competition will give voters — who've primarily seen him as a campaigner — a better look at his applied skills.
For his part, Biden praised his team for "engaging nonstop with the wireless carriers, airlines, and aviation equipment manufacturers to chart a path forward," but he shouldn't be too proud just yet. The 5G transition has been pending, after all, since the moment he took office.