The Race to 5G Called Due to Inclement Weather

For the past few years, it seems like you can’t walk more than three feet outside without some reference to the “race to 5G” appearing in an advertisement. 5G’s hype cycle has been long, but, done right, 5G will universally transform and enhance the way we do business and access healthcare. Generally, 5G means: 1) faster broadband speeds; 2) lower consumer costs; and 3) more interconnectivity. However, these outcomes aren’t going to happen magically. 5G is going to require a slew of different wireless infrastructure schemes and wide swaths of radio and microwave spectrum to accomplish these stated goals. To its credit, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) developed its 5G FAST Planto further U.S. leadership in the wireless space, but now, some unexpected regulators have appeared to disrupt 5G’s path forward.

Two agencies—National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Weather Service and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)— have raised reservations about the FCC’s recent Spectrum Frontiers auction of invaluable spectrum (namely in the 24 GHz band), which they literally expressed the day before the FCC held its auction. Why? Because of interagency infighting. On paper, NOAA and NASA have pointed to possible interference these new uses of the 24 GHz band will have on its water-vapor sensors. But this technical issue is a smokescreen for something that plagues all spectrum issues involving the government: it is simply hard to get government agencies to give something up. In the early frontier years of telecommunications, the United States gave government agencies, like NOAA and NASA, control over large amounts of spectrum. Now, spectrum has new uses and agencies are loathed to give up control. NOAA and NASA have a chance to help all Americans get access to information—including weather data—faster and efficiently but to do so will require them to stop the unhelpful interagency fighting, and join the larger 5G effort.

What Does the 24 GHz Spectrum Band Do, and Why Does It Matter to 5G?

 The FCC opening up 24 GHz comes from the position that your smartphone should be as mobile as you are. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), itself, recognized the 24 GHz band as a “key focus” for the 5G landscape. Regional and smaller carrierscould use the 24 GHz band to leverage millimeter waves in adjacent bands to facilitate point-to-multipoint connectivity, which can help them compete with the larger service providers. Think of 24 GHz like Inspector Gadget’s “Go Go Gadget Arms” that help him avoid onerous obstacles (e.g., trees, buildings, etc.) as he is chasing after his eternal foe, Dr. Claw. These types of microwaves, like 24 GHz, can provide last-mile wireless coverage to ensure that your experience on apps and other mobile services remain uninterrupted when bouncing from place to place. 24 GHz will be particularly helpfulto enhance apps that require a high-range spectrum (e.g., virtual reality, 3-D video, and streaming applications), especially in places where large swaths of spectrum in traditional bands are unavailable. Outside of consumer-based uses, this spectrum broadens 5G networks to perform life-saving services that require many points of connections, such as telemedicine or assisting first responders. It is why opening up this spectrum is so crucial to the success of 5G.

 Why Do NOAA and NASA Care About the Auctioning Off of This Spectrum?

NOAA and NASA have two primary concerns with the FCC’s recently-held auction: 1) the potential for harmful interference in adjacent bands (i.e., 23.6-24 GHz spectrum band) when collecting weather data through the use ofmicrowave sensors measuring atmospheric levels of water vapors; and 2) the alleged procedural breakdown between them and the FCC on its auctioning off blocks of the 24 GHz spectrum band. As for the former concern, it is not clear whether commercial wireless services will actually cause interference, but what is clear is the importance of 24 GHz to 5G. If this is truly a technical problem, then these agencies can solve it with technical solutions instead of performing political theater to advance policy objectives that stunt the development of this vital resource. NTIA—which must coordinate with government incumbents like NOAA and NASA—and other relevant agencies help to develop the United States Government’s position on 5G and agreedthis block of spectrum essential to its overall 5G strategy. Even after the Department of State—the main arbiter of interagency disputes—weighed in and sided with the FCC, these agencies still refuse to recognize 24 GHz as part of the comprehensive American 5G spectrum strategy. What’s more, NTIA has found no inference issues for incumbent government users (including NASA and NOAA’s National Weather Service) with the concurrent use of commercial wireless services in its two-year long investigation.

The latter concern distills down to an “unfair surprise” by the FCC onto these other agencies, which is an odd argument given that the FCC started planning to auction off this spectrum circa 2007. Additionally, nothing about the FCC’s auction seems out of step from the original plans, and it is unclear why these agencies are raising these concerns on procedural grounds. The issues involved in this aspect of the interagency dispute are hard to assess because it is mired in hearsay where the FCC claims that these agencies were consulted and the others denying these conversations took place. At this point, the FCC’s actions are, in effect, fait accompl,and it would be extraordinarily difficult and costly to the American taxpayers to reverse the results of the auction. It’s uncertain how this will impact the overall results of the auction.

Moving Forward

 Regardless of how this strange interagency telephone game (get it?) plays out, the important thing here is to make sure that the United States keeps its eyes on the prize: making sure that those willing and able to deploy these 5G networks are not incumbered by interagency disputes.

As we have articulated before, every single one of our members depend on broadband to perform even basic operations. If such deployments are delayed, then growing the app economy becomes exponentially more difficult. Without the full cooperation of the U.S. government, these networks’ infrastructure will be adversely affected and, ultimately, hurt our small business developers who intend to leverage 5G networks to provide their innovative services. Instead of making incendiary accusations, government agencies should be working with the FCC to ensure both that 5G deployment is not stunted and that government incumbent users are appropriately shielded from harmful interference.