Political Editors / January 21, 2022

In Brief: How to Mess Up a 5G Rollout

We’re from the FAA and we’re here to blame you for our mistakes.

Big Government isn’t just unconstitutional, it’s usually inept from a practical standpoint. That’s what Verizon and AT&T have discovered after years of planning their 5G rollout, only to be stonewalled — and then blamed — by the Biden administration.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes:

Verizon and AT&T said Tuesday they’ll delay a 5G rollout planned for Wednesday after airlines complained it would disrupt flights across the country. President Biden took credit for preventing anarchy in the skies, though his Administration created the mess.

At issue is the C-band spectrum that carriers plan to use to blanket metro areas with 5G. Carriers paid the U.S. government $80 billion for this valuable spectrum, but the Federal Aviation Administration now won’t let them use it. The agency says the signals could potentially interfere with plane altimeters that measure the distance to the ground.

The Federal Communications Commission reviewed these concerns during notice-and-comment on its plan to repurpose C-band from satellite operators. In March 2020, it approved a 258-page decision that included a safe buffer between the bands occupied by altimeters and 5G — larger than many other countries require.

Yet some 20 months later, the FAA demanded to relitigate the FCC decision and took airlines and carriers hostage. If Verizon and AT&T didn’t pause their 5G rollout, the FAA would order flights grounded or diverted. AT&T and Verizon didn’t want to be blamed for that, so they twice agreed to scale back and delay their rollouts.

Two weeks ago they struck a deal with the Transportation Department to limit C-band signals within a mile of airport runways for six months and delay deploying 5G until Jan. 19. The FAA said it wouldn’t ask for another delay. And if you believed that…

As the editors note, canceled flights are far more readily felt and objected to than a new service people have never enjoyed or depended on, which puts the network carriers at a distinct disadvantage in this battle. Nevertheless, we have to give some kudos to AT&T for its deft notice:

“At our sole discretion, we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment.”

The Journal’s editors, however, rightly add:

That’s far too charitable to the FAA and Transportation Department. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg rolled FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, who has supported the carriers’ 5G rollout behind the scenes. And now he and Mr. Biden are portraying their blundering as a diplomatic victory. This Administration needs less political spin and more competent governance.

Read the whole thing here.

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