Battle over 5G was primarily words shot at a distance
Surprising how many were unaware of FAA’s absolute safety mandate
Administrator Dickson insisted on THE DATA
[originally published on January 28, 2022, 8:51 AM at AINonline.]
The deployment of 5G [technical definition]has inspired so many vitriolic accusations, blame assignments based on “assumptions” and criticisms without factual citations. As with conflicts among federal agencies, the service providers, the consumers of a new technology and those who may be affected collaterally by this innovation, little of the underlying substance was revealed. Proprietary data, safety systems’ susceptibility to interference and the normal debate tactics of not showing your hand minimized the relevant information to the outside observers.
Ironically, one of the greatest benefits of 5G is a “faster, better delivery of information” (see above link). In the last few weeks, the trouble has become more transparent—the data is the thing to capture the safety of flying. The record makes it clear that the FAA was not willing to permit the aircraft under its STATUTORY HIGHEST LEVELS OF SAFETY jurisdiction without more detailed data (performance parameters that gave the FAA radio analyst enough to measure the interaction between the 5G signals and the altimeters).
The FAA Administrator, who is well known to be an analytical adherent ( as Nate Silver said “it’s the numbers, stupid”), appears to have taken the lead on insisting that the FCC and the Cell Coms share the granular parameters of their 5G signals.
The real problem underlying this horrendous public policy debate appears to have been the reluctance of the communications industry (not aware of any public statement of why; see below paragraph on FAA and proprietary information) to share the robust numbers. Administrator Dickson insisted on having access to the granular frequency profile that would reduce the risk of interference to ZERO. The “40-other- countries-do-it” argument (the EU and other countries where 5G and altimeters have co-existed so far) reflects a view that aviation safety needs only be close enough, a theorem demonstrated to be analytically superficial by the FAA’s chart-
As the FAA explained-“In 2020 ahead of the auction for 5G C-Band, the FAA again raised concerns and asked for a postponement to collaborate on a solution. The NTIA, the federal government coordinator on spectrum disputes, failed to put the 2020 letter into the FCC’s docket. Throughout 2021, the aviation industry continued to ask for additional collaboration and time in anticipation of the complications we now face. The industry also held several meetings throughout the year to find solutions, including in June and October.” It appears that the FAA was given the detailed data sometime in early January (before the first aircraft approval to fly without regard to 5G antennae on January 16 depending on the time it takes to make the safety checks).
Sorting out who did what, why and when is a task for a scholar from the Harvard Kennedy School (or elsewhere) with access to all the records to research. A superficial perspective points to the reluctance to share data. Once the FAA received the requisite data(see DOD is going through the same exercise and does not expect completed tests until the summer of 2022)., the staff immediately issued approvals for aircraft types to operate in a full 5G atmosphere:
- January 16, 2022-Boeing 737, 747, 757, 767, MD-10/-11 and Airbus A310, A319, A320, A321,A330 and A350 models
- January 19, 2022- 717, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, MD-10/-11 and Airbus A300, A310, A319, A320, A330, A340, A350 and A380 models
- January 20, 2022-estimated 78 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet
More analyses are in the works and by January 28, the FAA said 90 percent of commercial aircraft had received such approvals. The sophisticated avionics of many business aircraft could be adequate to function well with 5G transmissions; general aviation, however, does not typically spend as much on the sophisticated equipment.
What has not been mentioned in this kerfuffle is the damage to the international reputations of the FCC and FAA. The public bashing that has been displayed in the media has been observed by their regulatory peers around the world. NOT GOOD!!!
This debacle needs to be studied; this is not the last technological innovation requiring multiple, contemporary federal approvals. The root cause of this mess should be identified and a solution for future such cases need be proposed.
 49 U.S. Code § 40101(a)(1),(3)- (1)assigning and maintaining safety as the highest priority in air commerce…(3) preventing deterioration in established safety procedures, recognizing the clear intent, encouragement, and dedication of Congress to further the highest degree of safety in air transportation and air commerce, and to maintain the safety vigilance that has evolved in air transportation and air commerce and has come to be expected by the traveling and shipping public.
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