We live in a wireless world. So many devices are connected “over the air,” from phones and computers to watches. We even have WiFi-enabled thermostats and coffee pots in the new era of the “Internet of things.” Traditional TV and radio broadcasters still send their signals to the masses using high-powered transmitters and tall towers. And there are rivers of wireless data you don’t know about and probably take for granted.
With the wireless explosion in recent years comes a problem: We have already run out of the valuable spectrum of frequencies needed to make it all happen. And this shortage could very well impact the quality of weather forecasts for Americans, including critical severe weather warnings.
What is at risk? Live, real-time data from orbiting weather satellites that are positioned 22,000 miles over the Earth’s equator. These are our weather beacons in the sky, and they provide a plethora of data that has become critical to operational meteorologists.
Geostationary satellites help monitor and predict weather and environmental events, including tropical storms, tornadoes, flash floods, dust storms, volcanic eruptions and forest fires. Data is also used to measure precipitation, floodwater levels and harbor depths, atmospheric temperature and humidity, sea ice extent, forest fires, and volcanic eruptions.
The wireless path from these satellites back to ground stations on Earth is in jeopardy.
Commercial interests are hungry for more bandwidth and spectrum space, and they are asking the Federal Communications Commission to set up “sharing” arrangements between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the wireless broadband industry. The frequency range of concern is 1675-1680 MHz.
A sharing arrangement opens the door for interference and potential disruption of real-time satellite data to users in the weather enterprise.
The risk that we speak of is not contained within the weather enterprise. National and homeland security, emergency response, industry and every American could be affected by reduced and disrupted access to real-time satellite data crucial to forecasting severe weather. At the time of writing, the nation is bracing for potentially life-altering severe weather and consuming warnings of the potential for increased Atlantic hurricane activity this summer and fall.
And the weather enterprise is on the verge of acquiring a “game-changing” weather satellite, GOES-R. Scheduled to be launched in October, GOES-R boasts state-of-the-art technology, including vastly more spectral channels, increased resolution and rapid-scan capability. It will even be able to detect lightning.
Like the previous generation of GOES satellites, it will also provide monitoring capabilities for space weather. Coronal mass ejections and other space storms rightfully cause concern because they can completely disable global positioning-navigation systems, power grids and aviation communication and endanger passengers on high-altitude aircraft.
Raise your hand if you see the irony in taking away valuable frequencies required by GOES-R and the weather enterprise. We spend billions to protect our valuable communication infrastructure to support weather dissemination, and then we take capacity away?
Last year, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and National Weather Association (NWA) wrote a letter to Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). This closing comment of the letter is crystal clear and says it all:
“[T]he choice of which spectrum bands are shared should not endanger the reliability or the effectiveness of public safety meteorological and hydrological data flow from NOAA satellites. We note that the Presidential Memorandum on the wireless broadband revolution in 2010 directed that spectrum repurposing must . . . take into account the need to ensure no loss of critical existing and planned Federal, State, local and tribal government capabilities.”
The AMS and NWA expressed a similar concern in their joint letter to the FCC on this issue in March 2016. So even if you don’t take the word of two representatives of the weather enterprise, please consider the thousands of voices and collective expertise of the AMS and NWA.
Last week, the FCC released a public notice seeking comment on a wireless company’s request to share the 1675-1680 MHz band with current government users of these bands. The public notice is available at bit.ly/FCCGOESPublicNotice. Comments are due no later than June 21. Instructions for submitting a letter online in response to Rulemaking RM-11681 are located at bit.ly/FCCfilingtips. Be sure to cc: your letter to your local members of Congress and U.S. senators, who can be found via whoismyrepresentative.com.
We assure you, this is a big deal, and your voice is needed to help sustain the quality of severe weather forecasts we all rely on.
James Spann is an AMS-certified broadcast meteorologist in Birmingham, Ala., and host of the weekly podcast “WeatherBrains.”
Dr. Marshall Shepherd is the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor and director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program. He is the 2013 president of the AMS and host of Weather Channel’s WxGeeks.
Additional reading, from the American Meteorological Society: Protecting Scientific Use of the Spectrum