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In case you missed it, the airline industry recently issued a series of dire warnings that we would soon face mass flight cancellations with commerce grinding to a halt as a result of wireless carriers deploying 5G services in radio waves that are the electromagnetic equivalent of several zip codes away from the ones airplanes use for their altitude gauges. Those fears of interference potentially leading to catastrophe triggered an intense standoff between federal aviation and communications regulators. The long-planned 5G rollout was delayed. After an eleventh-hour flurry of rulemaking, aviation officials eventually began clearing flights in proximity to 5G services. Disasters have not come to pass.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the comedy of errors, but someday we’ll look back at this interagency spat as a case study not just in bureaucratic turf wars but in a broader lesson of how failure to invest in technological upgrades can leave some players looking silly while they struggle to adjust to changing times.
The radio altimeter debacle is what happens when wireless devices aren’t up to snuff, such that they are potentially unable to differentiate their own signals from others. In this case, the dispute unfolded in the swathe of spectrum known as the “C band,” where radio waves are the optimal length to transmit high volumes of data over practical distances. It’s a prime slice of radio real estate that has been slated for flexible uses, including 5G, for more than three years—plenty of time for everyone to prepare. During that time, the FAA demanded delay after delay, apparently not performing the necessary testing or upgrades to ensure planes could land safely. Meanwhile, ongoing 5G deployments in other parts of the spectrum was showing how cutting-edge technology can make more efficient use of airwaves so there is more bandwidth to go around.
While midband frequencies like those in the C band are important to 5G, 5G itself is more than any single radio frequency. It also includes a suite of technical protocols and advancements that will provide consumers with faster speeds while also using spectrum more efficiently. An example is “full duplex,” which allows 5G antennas to send and receive transmissions on the same frequencies at the same time. Another is “massive multiple input, multiple output,” which boosts capacity by increasing the number of antennas in a base station. Other advances have allowed wireless companies to use increasingly high frequencies, increasing speeds and the amount of the electromagnetic spectrum that is useable for communications.
Indeed, technological advancements have long been the key to successful instances of spectrum management between private industry and federal agencies. In the 3.5 GHz band, for example, wireless companies and the Defense Department invented and implemented new technologies known as environmental sensing capability and the spectrum access system. Together, these technologies allow commercial use of the band most of the time while allowing DOD to move them out of the way and get exclusive access when it needs to.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also recently showcased AI-based and autonomous spectrum management systems, which demonstrated intensive use of spectrum while also coordinating with neighboring uses. These are the sorts of cooperative technologies that can allow everyone to use more spectrum without harmful interference—and without regulatory clashes like those that delayed 5G deployment in the C band.
As the altimeter dispute showed, spectrum policy now impacts every industry, so every industry should be interested and investing in technologies to create spectrum abundance. The global wireless industry invests over $250 billion per year in research and development. If airlines had been spending even a fraction of the time and money improving their radio altimeters that wireless companies spent creating efficient 5G technologies, we likely never would have seen a conflict.
As our daily lives depend increasingly on spectrum, they also depend on the technologies that will use it as efficiently as possible. We can’t afford to keeping falling into a kludgy regulatory back-and-forth with agencies and industries demanding the last piece of an ever-shrinking pie. Rather, policymakers should spur broader and deeper investment in a future of spectrum abundance. Legislation now under consideration to bolster U.S. competitiveness with China, the America COMPETES Act, includes $1.5 billion to spur wireless innovation, which would be a good start. Long-term research and investment can grow the pie to enhance wireless capabilities for everyone.