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How Trump and Biden Both Screwed Up 5G

The increasingly stupid conflict between the FAA and FCC is the payoff of two administrations’ mismanagement and neglect.

By Sascha Segan

The one major thing driving me nuts this week is what Light Reading’s Mike Dano described as the “ impressively stupid” ongoing battle between the FAA and FCC over C-band rollouts, which threatens to imperil both AT&T and Verizon launching 5G that has any actual value.

In brief: After the wireless carriers spent more than $80 billion on C-band airwaves, the aviation industry wants to put everything on hold out of fear that planes using very old radio altimeters without filters (from what I hear, 30-plus years old) may be negatively affected. The FCC already increased its guard band around 5G usage because of these complaints, and the spectrum has been deployed in more than 40 other countries without any issues, but the FAA is holding the line. AT&T and Verizon have delayed their next 5G rollouts from Dec. 5 to at least Jan. 5 to let the agencies slap-fight it out.

It’s really stupid, because this should have been worked out before the spectrum was auctioned in 2020. The FAA et al. have been complaining the whole time; what seems to have shifted is not the volume or tone of the complaints, but the power dynamics within the federal government.

The original sin here belongs to Ajit Pai, Donald Trump’s feckless leader of the FCC. He was responsible for the original dumb plan to base US 5G on millimeter-wave spectrum rather than mid-band, and he was responsible for waving off the FAA’s concerns without definitively solving or stopping them.

Millimeter-wave is not useless. It’s great for high-traffic areas and venues. It is not the foundation layer for citywide networks. Pai, however, was a coward, and took a coward’s approach. Rather than confront established users like satellite companies, aviation, and the Department of Defense to carve out mid-band like the entire rest of the world did, he saw the unused mmWave frequencies and put responsibilities on them that they could never bear.

That original sin has contributed to the current nonsense in a less obvious way. I’ve gotten some emails from people in the aviation community who see planes as real things that help people, and 5G as dumb and empty marketing promises. They’re not entirely wrong. Verizon, especially, overpromised 5G capabilities in 2018 to 2019, giving us an image of dominant millimeter-wave networks that would enable a “fourth industrial revolution.” That extremely did not happen.

Here’s where Biden comes in. While not malicious, he’s been neglectful, leaving a seat on the five-member FCC long open and only getting around to nominating acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel as actual FCC chair last month. The NTIA, part of the Department of Commerce, which is sort of tasked as a referee in these interagency fights, also only got an actual director nominated a few weeks ago. Apparently “acting” doesn’t give you the magic stones you need to go into gladiatorial combat against other agencies. So the FAA, basically, has been able to run roughshod over the situation.

That leaves us, all around, in a very dumb place. There are several possible solutions for this FCC/FAA drama, and for other potential FCC/DOD and FCC/NOAA fights; they usually involve paying incumbent users off in some way, just as the FCC essentially did with the satellite companies. They all should have been figured out by Pai’s regime, but he was too busy swigging from his oversized mug to deal with it. With any luck, once Rosenworcel gets her crown and sword, or whatever powers Senate confirmation brings you, it can get straightened out.

Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.

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