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The FCC, FAA, And The Costly Delay Of American 5G Technology

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 What looked like a long-awaited U.S. infrastructure success story may have to wait until after Christmas to see how the last chapter ends. At long last, U.S. telecom companies are in the midst of rolling out 5G cellular networks for their customers; unfortunately, they have also run into a bureaucratic brick wall – a public spat between two federal agencies. 

Resolving this issue is urgent because the new networks are an order of magnitude faster than the current networks and will allow entirely new services and industries to develop around them. U.S. businesses have already made sizable investments predicated on 5G being readily available in the near future, and these, in turn, will bring tangible improvements to the lives of Americans. 

While the 5G network rollout was supposed to happen in December, the FAA lodged a last-minute objection to this plan, claiming it had found evidence that 5G services could potentially interfere with the functioning of airplane altimeters, which use an adjacent spectrum. The last-minute objection is perplexing, given that the FCC—and not the FAA—is the agency with jurisdiction over telecommunications issues (not to mention the expertise to discern such things). 

If you haven’t been following the issue, you might think that U.S. telecom companies have pushed innovative 5G services faster than the government could keep up with regulating them. You’d be wrong, though. America’s shift to 5G has not been done in haste: Research on its development first began about 13 years ago, in 2008. 

The FCC began to take steps to prepare for a transition several years ago, including performing the necessary tests to ensure that the transition would not have any negative impacts on entities using nearby spectrum. In other words, the issue the FAA has raised should have been dealt with some time ago. In the last few years, the transition proceeded apace, which—among other things—entailed compensating those entities giving up their rights to the spectrum, transitioning other entities to a new band, and ensuring that the new arrangements would work satisfactorily for everyone involved. 

The U.S. needs to make this 5G transition in a timely manner, because this “fifth generation” of wireless technology will improve the speed and reduce latency of wireless communications networks. These improvements will enable services that have the potential to revolutionize healthcare, transportation, agriculture, education, and many other facets of our society. For instance, driverless cars cannot communicate with each other—a necessary precursor for their safe operation—without the speeds of 5G, and things like remote medical procedures will be impossible. 

In addition to more convenient and innovative consumer goods and services, the sheer economic costs to the U.S. of delaying the broad-based rollout of 5G would be enormous: one study estimates that the benefits of 5G deployment approach $300 billion in the next six years alone. 

People who live in major metropolitan areas of the U.S., such as Washington D.C., already have some access to 5G networks, but extending the network beyond the dense urban communities into the more rural areas that make up much  of the U.S. involves much more investment, and it’s this rollout that is getting delayed by the FAA-FCC spat. The people who live in those more rural communities will pay the biggest price if the 5G network rollout were to be delayed further, which would serve to exacerbate the digital divide. 

There could also be second-order effects downstream of the telecom industry into the broader U.S. business community. The uncertainty engendered by the last-minute pause may cause businesses to hesitate before making further investments to develop new products that would exploit 5G networks. If it becomes a possibility that a portion of this spectrum may remain with the FAA, that may impinge upon the functionality of a myriad of goods currently under development. 

The FAA’s attempt to slow or halt the 5G rollout is emblematic of a larger problem with regulatory authorities that have overlapping jurisdictions in that they typically have no inclination—or incentive—to take into account the impact of their own agenda on the priorities of other regulatory agencies, and sub-optimal policy decision making ensues. 

For instance, when the FAA tried to impose a rule that children under two must fly with a car seat, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (where I worked at the time) halted its efforts, pointing out that such a step would increase the cost of flying for families with young children and that the additional driving they would do as a result would result in more deaths than children flying without a car seat. 

The FAA did not back down, however: Its job, the agency staff argued, was to improve safety on planes, and how its rules impacted highway deaths was simply not in its list of considerations. Unfortunately, OIRA has not yet had an Administrator nominated, so it may be incapable of negotiating this dispute. Hopefully, the White House will step in if this delay continues. 

It is hard to overstate the importance of 5G to our nation’s future standard of living, and further delays would cost U.S. households dearly by impacting our national competitiveness, reducing their income and keeping technological improvements that could improve their health, safety, and standard living from reaching them.