Original title: Inside the Government Fiasco That Nearly Closed the U.S. Air System
Published: May 26, 2022
By: Peter Elkind
Republished according to Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
The upgrade to 5G was supposed to bring a paradise of speedy wireless. But a chaotic process under the Trump administration, allowed to fester by the Biden administration, turned it into an epic disaster. The problems haven’t been solved.
On Jan. 18, following nail-biting negotiations involving CEOs, a Cabinet secretary and White House aides, an eleventh-hour agreement averted these threats of aviation armageddon. Verizon and AT&T agreed not to turn on more than 600 5G transmission towers near the runways of 87 airports and to reduce the power of others.
Disaster was averted. But the fact that it was such a close call was shocking nonetheless. How did a long-planned technology upgrade result in a standoff that seemed to threaten public safety and one of the nation’s largest industries? The reasons are numerous, but it’s undeniable that the new 5G deployment represents an epic debacle by multiple federal agencies, the regulatory equivalent of a series of 300-pound football players awkwardly fumbling the ball as it bounces crazily into and out of their arms.
More than anything, a deep examination of the fiasco reveals profound failures in two federal agencies — the Federal Communications Commission[FCC] and the FAA — that are supposed to serve the public. In the case of the FCC, the agency not only advocated for the interests of the telecommunications industry but adopted its worldview, scorning evidence of risk and making cooperation and compromise nearly impossible.
In the case of the FAA, the agency inexplicably stayed silent and passively watched preparations for 5G proceed over a period of years even as the aviation industry sounded ever more dire warnings that the new networks could put air safety at risk.
That’s the alarming picture that emerges, in new detail, in interviews with 51 participants and observers in the 5G rollout, along with a review of thousands of pages of documents. The problems have spanned a Republican and Democratic administration. The process first ran off the rails under President Donald Trump. It then festered under the administration of President Joe Biden — which ProPublica’s reporting shows impeded the FAA when it finally decided to act — until a crisis forced an intervention.
For now, the truce between the FCC and telecom companies, on one side, and the FAA and aviation companies, on the other, is holding. The parties have mostly tempered their hostile rhetoric, sounded hopeful notes of “coexistence” and have begun to collaborate. The FAA is allowing the wireless companies to slowly turn on more 5G towers as planes mostly keep flying. (About a thousand regional jets, mostly used by JetBlue, American, Delta and United, are currently barred from landing in low-visibility conditions at many airports over fears of equipment interference.)
But the underlying issues are far from resolved. Aviation companies say they need much more time — perhaps two years or more — to upgrade or replace all the equipment vulnerable to 5G interference, according to Bob Fox, a United Airlines pilot now serving as national safety coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Association, a key player in the drama.
The telecom companies have no interest in such a lengthy time frame: Their agreement with the government is set to expire on July 5, and they have made no commitment to extending the restrictions on their towers past that date. The companies have been exhibiting a willingness to make short-term compromises, but they’re also showing hints of frustration that they can’t seem to bring the process to a resolution.
For its part, the FCC seems aggrieved. It overwhelmingly blames the aviation agency for the problems and simultaneously says it’s cooperating with the FAA — while continuing to insist that any claims that 5G will threaten airplanes are pure fantasy. The rhetoric of the FCC chief is almost identical to that of the industry she regulates. As recently as last month, Jessica Rosenworcel, the Biden-appointed FCC chair, dismissed aviation concerns as, in effect, a shakedown — a ploy to get telecom companies to fund a nationwide upgrade of airplane equipment. Referring to the air-safety devices that the aviation industry says could be compromised by 5G, she said in an interview with ProPublica,
“Has anyone spec’d the cost of altimeter replacement?”
And a whole new telecom-aviation conflict could soon emerge. T-Mobile and other wireless companies are approved to roll out additional 5G service at the end of 2023, using a C-band frequency even closer to the one used by the airplane safety equipment. Like other participants in the process, T-Mobile says it’s committed to safety and to finding a reasonable solution. But if that rollout unfolds in a way that resembles the last one in the slightest way, a reasonable solution may be elusive.
Did You Know – The Facts on 5G and Radio Altimeters
Published: May 16, 2022
- The Washington Post:
FAA says some planes will be ‘too susceptible’ to 5G interference to be safe
Published: January 20, 2022
- The Guardian:
Airbus and Boeing express concerns over 5G interference in US
Published: December 21, 2021
The FAA Is Concerned Enough About 5G’s Potential To Affect Radar Altimeters That It Issued A Directive
Published: November 4, 2021
Bringing 5G to the skies is more complicated than it seems