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Opinion The FAA’s 5G freakout raises a big red flag — about its competence

A 5G cell tower in Salt Lake City on Jan. 11. (George Frey/Bloomberg)

Have you ever heard of “5G”?

It’s not a trick question. Yes, 5G — the long-promised next step in cellular technology. The same 5G you could avoid hearing about only by moving to a hut in the Himalayas. And turning off your phone.

5G has for years been the enigmatic subject of countless hours of advertisements from wireless providers and smartphone manufacturers. So why, you might ask, did the Federal Aviation Administration only recently jump up and down, waving its orange-tipped flashlights, to attempt to halt the Jan. 19 flip of the switch that would finally activate a major part of the long-, long-, long-promised 5G network?

Chances are you encountered the term not long after you got your first smartphone. It ran on 3G and, frankly, was only smart-ish. It had trouble streaming a movie and simultaneously downloading a book while texting a photo album. Too, too slow. Wireless marketers were hyping 4G. Meanwhile, your tech-savvy friend said smugly: That’s nothing, they’re already working on 5G.

And they were. It wasn’t a secret. A huge company, Sprint, died on the road to 5G. Companies paid more than $80 billion at well-publicized federal auctions for 5G space on the public airwaves.

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Yet it seems to have caught the FAA by surprise. The agency threatened flight cancellations, cargo slowdowns and supply-chain snarls worse than the snarls we’ve already been dealing with. The concern: Activated 5G spectrum might interfere with older altitude sensors that bring aircraft in for safe landings.

We can agree that planes smashing into the ground would be a bad thing. But how real is the risk?

According to Tom Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and former head of the Federal Communications Commission, whatever small risk might exist should have been eliminated long ago. In a recent paper explaining the issue, Wheeler cited various compromises and delays offered by the wireless industry — all met with last-minute panic-mongering by the FAA.

The Post's View: A last-minute technological clash could slow the 5G rollout. Who’s to blame?

At issue: a sweet spot in the radio spectrum between 3.7 and 4.4 gigahertz. Here, the wavelengths are long enough to travel a good distance — important for cellular coverage — but short enough to hold a lot of data. The space from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz was authorized for 5G, while the band from 4.2 to 4.4 GHz carries messages to aircraft altimeters. The FAA is worried about interference where the bands meet.

Wheeler notes that Boeing, battered by safety issues, proposed a protective margin from 4.1 to 4.2 GHz where 5G would not venture. The FCC, which regulates the wireless spectrum, agreed, then doubled the margin, limiting 5G signals to wavelengths below 4.0 GHz.

The FAA and its aviation constituents said it remained worried that some altimeters might yet be vulnerable to interference. Instead of acting during the long 5G rollout, the agency chose a flurry of late-stage hand-wringing.

Wheeler counsels: “Clear heads are needed to separate what is only hypothetical possibility based on worst-case assumptions” — the FAA’s Chicken Little scenario — “from what is highly probable based on real-world use.”

More is at stake than the speed with which sports fans can gamble on their phones. High-speed wireless is a major economic and technical battlefield on which national security depends. The United States already lags China in adoption of 5G communications.

Beyond that, the FAA’s foot-dragging raises a red flag over the agency’s competence. Demand for space on the airwaves has been rising steeply for generations. But now we learn that countless aircraft may be flying with crucial safety equipment vulnerable to interference — and that the number of vulnerable aircraft is unknown because, Wheeler writes, the agency has no set standard for altimeter security.

Admittedly, the FAA is under a lot of pressure from changing technologies. Package delivery companies are clamoring for permission to fly drones beyond the line of sight. Measures are needed to prevent that same technology from becoming a bomb-delivery vehicle for terrorists. Autonomous-flight air taxis and all-electric airplanes aren’t far behind. The skies will be as crowded as the wireless spectrum.

The agency also faces tough nontechnical demands, such as keeping up with pandemic health measures, battling unruly travelers and finding the next generation of pilots, flight attendants and air traffic controllers.

Yet if a challenge as slow-moving and widely publicized as 5G can catch the FAA unprepared, it’s hard to be hopeful about smooth landings in these other areas. On Jan. 18, the Biden administration announced an agreement for 5G deployment to (mostly) move ahead. But Jan. 19 should not have become a crisis. The fact that the date became tangled in controversy is a flashing warning beacon: The FAA needs to improve its performance. The United States needs regulators as nimble and relentless as the innovators who push technology forward. After all, as our tech-savvy friends will be happy to tell us:

They’re already working on 6G.