What’s the Real Story? (Updated)

I presume you’ve heard about the snafu surrounding what was supposed to have been the rollout of 5G today. Here’s Reuters’s description:

WASHINGTON, Jan 16 (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Sunday it had cleared an estimated 45% of the U.S. commercial airplane fleet to perform low-visibility landings at many airports where 5G C-band will be deployed starting Wednesday.

The FAA has warned that potential interference could affect sensitive airplane instruments such as altimeters and make an impact on low-visibility operations.

U.S. passenger and cargo airlines have been sounding the alarm to senior government officials that the issue is far from resolved and could severely impact flights and the supply chain.

“Even with the approvals granted by the FAA today, U.S. airlines will not be able to operate the vast majority of passenger and cargo flights due to the FAA’s 5G-related flight restrictions unless action is taken prior to the planned Jan. 19 rollout,” said Airlines for America, a trade group representing American Airlines (AAL.O), Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), Fedex (FDX.N) and other carriers.

I am seeing a lot of fingerpointing—at the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the carriers, and the airlines—and I have no idea how to arbitrate the various claims. The only thing that’s clear is that it’s a disorganized mess. Law, sausages, and now apparently 5G networks.

Can anyone explain to me who did or didn’t do what?


Good observations from Gus Hurwitz at RealClearPolicy:

On the surface, the fight between the FAA and FCC is a technocratic disagreement about the use of spectrum in the 3.7GHz band for 5G wireless services. The FAA, backed by Boeing and Airbus, is concerned that allowing cellular carriers to use this spectrum will interfere with avionics systems on some aircraft. The FCC, which spent years studying the issue, has developed usage rules that it believes address interference concerns. The FCC’s rules are similar to those that have been used by wireless carriers in Europe without incident and seek to accommodate the aviation industry’s concerns.

But the real fight is not really about technical rules for wireless spectrum; it’s about agency attitudes toward risk and responsibility. The FAA is a risk-averse agency (one of many). This is the same FAA that spent years arguing that passenger use of cell phones posed a threat to planes, even while they were on the ground. After years of pushback, use of cell phones on planes has been allowed for the past several years without incident.

Risk aversion does have its place. But in seeking to minimize risks to the aviation industry, the FAA does not consider the costs its policies impose on those outside the industry, or even on consumers within the industry. The problem is that the FAA has no incentive to care about those costs. The agency and its leaders get no credit for factoring those costs into their decision-making, but they would face intense scrutiny for any kind of safety incident that in hindsight could have been avoided.

Read the whole thing. There is very little that any administration can do about the sort of institutional culture he highlights. We need major government reorganization and civil service reform.

2 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    Here is my understanding.

    The FCC has the statuary responsibility of managing “spectrum”. As part of 5G rollout, carriers needed additional “mid-band” spectrum. The FCC reallocated spectrum “C-Band” from previous uses (in this case they were used for satellite communication) and auctioned it off (the proceeds are split between the Federal Government and the previous license holders).

    In this case, the FAA had theoretical concerns that altimeters that used a neighboring frequency may suffer interference from increased radio emissions. I say theoretical because electrical engineering would say it requires extraordinarily badly designed equipment to suffer interference considering the frequency differences (there’s a 200MHz+ “guard band”). And my understanding is similar C-band spectrum are already deployed for 5G in other parts of the world with no issues.

    This is my guess, the FAA doesn’t want to take chances and they specifically want altimeters that are certified to work. Most altimeters are unlikely to be certified because they were produced before the spectrum reallocation occurred. Airlines don’t want to pay for replacing their existing set of altimeters. The carriers through the FCC and FAA were working to solve the problem (since they are all part of the Federal government, and they paid the FCC a lot of money so the frequency could be used on Jan 1), and they don’t want to pay the airlines to buy new altimeters. The bad assumption was the FCC and FAA were working together; since the FCC has the statuary right to manage frequencies, the FAA couldn’t stop the auction or put conditions on the spectrum, and the FCC thought the FAA was being ridiculous because of the physics.

  • Shorter: the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing or maybe didn’t give a dern.

    If Trump were president, it’s the sort of thing that some would blame him for. I wouldn’t and I wouldn’t blame Biden for it when it’s happening on his watch. I’d blame out-of-control bureaucracies.

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