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How Washington flew into a 5G mess

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The collision between wireless companies and the airlines mushroomed into a potential political crisis this week for President Joe Biden, pitting air travel for millions of Americans against the U.S. struggle for supremacy in ultra-fast internet.

It’s also the latest example of dysfunction in how the U.S. carves up its lucrative wireless spectrum.

Past spectrum actions by the Federal Communications Commission have inspired decades-long feuds between telecom companies and automakers; kicked off a legal battle involving electric utilities, broadcasters, cable operators and Google; and prompted the Trump-era Pentagon to warn that the FCC was imperiling the nation’s GPS service.

Now the mess has landed in Biden’s lap, as his appointees at the FCC and the Department of Transportation take opposing sides on the airlines’ arguments that new 5G service could make plane crashes more likely. Verizon and AT&T switched on most of their planned service Wednesday, prompting airlines to cancel or reroute some flights but bringing no signs of all-out chaos.

Veterans of the wireless spats point to many causes for the disarray, including a two-and-a-half-year absence of permanent leadership atop the Commerce Department office in charge of mediating spectrum disputes among agencies. (Biden’s nominee for that job, Alan Davidson, finally won confirmation eight days ago.)

Aviation backers also fault the Trump administration for blowing off the industry’s warnings about plans to offer 5G service on this slice of spectrum, which the FCC auctioned to bidders including Verizon and AT&T two years ago for a total exceeding $80 billion. But defenders of the wireless plan accuse Biden of letting the DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration go rogue.

Complicating the issue: Unlike most other countries, the U.S. has no single agency making its spectrum decisions. The Trump administration also never delivered the “national spectrum strategy” that was supposed to guide such policies — a pledge that Biden’s Commerce Department now promises to take on.

“This is what you get when you don’t have a national policy,” Obama-era FCC Chair Tom Wheeler said in an interview. “The Trump administration handed an empty bag to the Biden administration on spectrum policy. That bag needs to be filled.”

Senior FCC Republican Brendan Carr said early this month that he has “never seen such a dysfunctional process,” and on Wednesday accused Biden of letting agencies like DOT sidestep the established system for managing spectrum.

“Instead of sticking with the process, the good process, late last year the Biden administration veered course,” Carr said Wednesday on CNBC. “It invited the type of manipulation that we saw by entities that spread misinformation because they knew — or they betted on — the administration would cave.”

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More money, more spectrum squabbles

Spectrum is scarce, and the era of wireless internet service has made it a valuable prize for tech and telecom companies. That has fueled fierce competition for the same stretches of airwaves valued by users such as TV and radio broadcasters, public safety agencies, power companies and the military.

In the U.S., decisions about this invisible, increasingly stretched resource fall to two agencies.

The FCC, which is legally independent of the president’s administration, regulates the slices reserved for commercial users. It also faces pressure from Congress, the White House and the telecom industry to expand 5G, a key to advancing technologies such as driverless cars and smart appliances.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration represents the executive branch’s views on spectrum issues and chairs a group of agency representatives to help sort out complicated spectrum matters.

Other agencies with a stake in these decisions also have competing demands. For DOT and the FAA, that imperative is air safety — an arena in which the FAA’s reputation is still recovering from its oversight of deadly flaws in Boeing’s 737 MAX jets.

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The 5G fight is far from the first time these tensions have simmered in public view.

Two years ago, Trump-era Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao sided with the auto industry against the FCC’s plans to allow Wi-Fi signals on a slice of spectrum that had been reserved for vehicle safety technology. The FCC approved the plan anyway, with Trump-designated Chair Ajit Pai saying that “a few corporate interests cannot squat on this spectrum for a generation.” A federal appeals court will hear a challenge to that spectrum carve-up next week.

Earlier in the Trump era, the NTIA had objected to the FCC’s decision to award a swath of 5G spectrum to a satellite company called Ligado Networks, citing warnings from agencies like DOT and the Defense Department that the signals would interfere with GPS service. Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration argued that 5G signals on a different section of airwaves could disrupt weather forecasting.

The FCC and DOT have also jousted over whether people can safely turn on their cellphones during flights — a tussle that ended with a rule allowing the phones to operate in airplane mode.

The latest 5G spat originated with an auction of so-called C-band spectrum airwaves that the FCC approved in early 2020. Bidding kicked off that December, weeks before then-President Donald Trump left office.

In October of that same year, a nonprofit aviation technical body called RTCA released a six-month study that said the 5G signals could interfere with planes’ altitude-sensing instruments, possibly causing “catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities” by making it harder for pilots to avoid crashing into the ground.

The FAA offered its own objections to the NTIA in late 2020, in a memo citing the RTCA study. The Commerce Department never made the memo publicly available.

But NTIA officials concluded that the warnings had no meaningful evidence behind them, according to Adam Candeub, who was the telecom agency’s acting chief at the time, and it declined to raise objections to the sale. Candeub said the RTCA report had “serious flaws,” echoing criticism from wireless industry groups that note that some countries in Asia and Europe are safely using 5G on the same airwaves.

Under Biden, the FAA and DOT went public, cautioning that without changes to lessen interference, airlines would react to the uncertain risk by grounding or rerouting flights. This would cause “widespread and unacceptable disruption,” Biden Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Trump-appointed FAA chief Steve Dickson wrote in a New Year’s Eve letter to the wireless companies.

On the other side, though, was Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who now serves as chair under Biden. While she objected to aspects of the FCC’s auction plan, she helped oversee the sale last year and has said she’s confident the aviation and wireless industries can work out their differences.

“We know that deployment can safely co-exist with aviation technologies in the United States, just as it does in other countries around the world,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

‘Chicken Little’ or a rush to judgment?

The threat of economically disruptive flight cancellations turned the 5G flap into a problem for the White House.

Biden’s aides helped broker a compromise Jan. 3 in which AT&T and Verizon agreed to a two-week delay in activating their 5G service, after earlier acceding to a month-long postponement starting in early December. The White House also worked with the FAA to identify 50 airports that needed buffer zones to safeguard them from wireless interference.

On Tuesday, after airlines pushed for further delay, the wireless companies agreed Tuesday to place additional curbs on the service while vowing to launch as scheduled Wednesday.

The latest deal would allow “more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled,” Biden said in a statement Tuesday, praising it as a “massive step in the right direction” toward expanding 5G.

Plenty of people are still unhappy with the outcome, and how Washington got there.

Carr, the Republican FCC commissioner, has said the flap should have ended years earlier, when his agency — the congressionally designated expert in regulating the airwaves — settled these safety questions in an open rulemaking.

“There’s nothing that I have seen that suggests to me doing anything above and beyond the FCC’s final decision was either necessary or required,” Carr told reporters during a call last month about the 5G launch. “It’s time to light it up.”

Candeub, the former NTIA chief, faulted the FAA for making such a public ruckus on the eve of the deployment.

“For whatever reason, the FAA did not act responsibly, sat out of the interagency process — and then at last minute, is playing Chicken Little,” Candeub told POLITICO. “What I worry about is agencies not playing by the rules.”

But in fact, aviation industry interests such as Boeing had been voicing qualms about the 5G plans in FCC filings since 2018. When the FAA first raised its concerns in 2020, the NTIA failed to behave as an “honest broker,” said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, who was DOT’s deputy assistant secretary for research and technology under Trump.

She accused some of her fellow Trump appointees of being overly focused on the success of the 5G sale, which promised to be a legacy-making achievement for the president’s efforts to best China in the tech race. “One of the legacies was going to be a big fat number of billions of dollars for auctioning off this spectrum,” Furchtgott-Roth said in an interview.

Asked about Candeub’s criticisms, the FAA shared a statement: “The FAA has followed its long-established safety process. This process is one of the key reasons that U.S. commercial air travel is the safest form of transportation in the world.”

Trump veterans who supported the 5G sale still celebrate the outcome.

“We actually fought the FAA and we won,” former National Economic Council leader Larry Kudlow said last month on his Fox Business program, deriding the aviation agency’s “ankle-biting letters.”

Pai, his guest on that program, maintains that the FCC got it right.

“We studied the science, and we found out there was no potential for interference with altimeters,” said Pai, who as FCC chair had taken tons of flak from lawmakers of both parties. “Lo and behold, new administration, same old objection — so they’re trying to re-litigate this issue again, even though the decision has been made based on the facts. I think it’s a major test of new leadership.”

Knocking heads together

Another problem is a shortage of leaders at the agencies in the middle of these fights.

Biden waited until late October to announce his nominees for his top telecom posts, a longer delay than any previous president had allowed. The Senate didn’t confirm Davidson to helm NTIA until Jan. 11, partly because Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) had blocked a swath of Commerce Department nominees over unrelated supply chain grievances.

Now that those leaders are in place, talk is turning to ways to head off future spectrum chaos.

Rosenworcel and Davidson have endorsed one proposal gaining steam in Congress, which could require the FCC and NTIA to update a 2003 memorandum of understanding that outlines how the agencies are supposed to get along. Such an update could include agreements about testing and what “harmful interference” looks like, Rosenworcel told senators last year.

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The White House has realized the dysfunction and been taking the right steps, a veteran wireless industry executive familiar with the 5G negotiations told POLITICO, requesting anonymity given the sensitivity of the ongoing talks. The official added that there’s “no one in the Biden White House who really knows spectrum” — but that is set to change given the 5G shake-up in recent months.

“They get it now. They get the problem. And you see the result in a clear and definitive resolution,” the wireless official added.

To veterans like Wheeler, White House leadership and an empowered NTIA will outweigh any update to the old agency memorandum. The existing document already contains what Wheeler views as a crucial line: “Final action by the FCC,” the agreement says, “does not require approval of the NTIA.”

“At some point in time,” Wheeler reflected, “spectrum policy becomes the knocking together of heads.”

Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.

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