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FAA chief says scramble to determine risks of 5G rollout ‘did not serve anyone well’

A plane flies above a 5G cellular tower in Los Angeles last month. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)
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Despite concerns emerging in 2015 about 5G technology interfering with airplane safety gear, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday told lawmakers his agency only received detailed data to determine the precise risks in late December.

The testimony by FAA Administrator Steve Dickson underscored how the government scrambled to ensure flights could still land safely as Verizon and AT&T prepared to turn on the new wireless service. The companies twice delayed their plans, giving the FAA more time to prepare for a rollout that brought minimal aviation disruptions last month.

“The process did not serve anyone well,” Dickson told members of the House Transportation Committee. “It did not serve the aviation community well, certainly the FAA, and it also did not serve the telecommunications industry well. We certainly need to do better as a country.”

The FAA has been clearing individual airplane models to land at airports affected by 5G signals when visibility is low. The agency last week announced an agreement that will allow wireless carriers to activate more towers while also enabling more aircraft to operate at key airports.

The FAA has warned since last fall that radio altimeters, which provide altitude measurements and are critical for landing in poor visibility, could be susceptible to interference from 5G networks, which operate on nearby airwaves. As the networks have come online, the agency has cleared 90 percent of commercial planes for flying.

“While we have avoided significant disruption to commercial aviation, we recognize that some communities and operations have been affected because we have not been able to fully mitigate interference risk for certain radio altimeters,” Dickson said.

Dickson said government agencies, aviation companies and the wireless industry are working together, but the collaboration only advanced after a months-long battle that pitted airlines against the telecom giants. When the companies were ready to flip the switch last month, the White House stepped in to secure limits on the deployment after airlines warned of chaos.

Wireless carriers limited 5G near airports after airlines warned of major disruptions

In testimony Thursday, Dickson said that because the FAA doesn’t regulate the wireless companies, it couldn’t easily compel them to share data that could affect aviation safety. The information the agency’s experts needed was not something the companies had shared with the government in the past, he said.

“They’ve never even really thought about the impact of a C-band signal on a moving aircraft,” he said. “It was just not something that was within their calculus.”

Wireless carriers in recent weeks have provided additional information about the location of their transmitters, allowing the FAA to conduct a more thorough analysis of how the 5G C-band signals interact with aircraft altimeters. The new data has enabled the FAA to reduce areas around airports where steps are taken to prevent potential interference, which the agency says will enable more towers to be activated in major markets.

Although disruptions since the rollout have been limited, Nicholas Calio, chief executive of the industry group Airlines for America, told the committee in written remarks that on some days, carriers are still left “simply hoping for good weather so flights can be cleared to land at their intended destinations.”

Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, the top Republican on the aviation subcommittee, said the last-minute scramble had been an embarrassment and that federal agencies should have worked together earlier to ensure that the technology was safe.

“There’s no excuse for us to be in this situation,” he said.

In prepared remarks, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), the committee’s chairman, said the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Trump administration, Ajit Pai, had missed opportunities to tackle the problems.

“The FCC’s history of subordinating transportation safety to corporate broadband interests has predictably resulted in the current mess we find ourselves in and must change if we hope to avoid a similar result in the future,” DeFazio said.

Pai said in an interview that DeFazio’s concerns and those of the aviation sector “are entirely misplaced.” He said that during his tenure as chairman, the FCC coordinated with multiple federal agencies, including the Transportation Department, on spectrum issues. He added that the FAA had opportunities to raise concerns about the effects 5G services would have on aviation safety.

“They might not like the answer they got, but they certainly had a chance to have input,” Pai said.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s current chief, was invited to the hearing but had a prior commitment, FCC spokeswoman Paloma Perez said. She said Rosenworcel met with DeFazio and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) separately Wednesday and had a productive discussion.

FAA says some planes will be ‘too susceptible’ to 5G interference to be safe

The House committee on Thursday also heard from the leaders of groups representing the aviation and wireless industries.

Meredith Attwell Baker, chief executive of CTIA, a wireless industry group, wrote in prepared remarks that the aviation industry relied on faulty data to stoke concerns about 5G.

“Aviation interests primarily rely on a single industry study, but that study applied flawed methodology and implausible scenarios to claim interference,” she wrote.

Baker wrote that evidence from other countries with similar 5G networks, combined with the initial rollout in the United States, shows the new technology presents no danger. But she took a more conciliatory tone in her testimony, saying, “we have shown that, engineer to engineer, there is a path forward together.”

Calio sought to play down the dispute between the industries, saying airlines were supportive of 5G and blamed the government for not acting sooner. “The truth of the matter is that both of our industries have been thrust into this avoidable economic calamity by a government process that failed to provide an adequate amount of interagency communication, understanding and recognition of decisional consequences,” he wrote.

Dickson said he was confident that the sectors were now in a position to collaborate.

“The FAA’s primary concern is and will always be the safety of the aviation system. But we firmly believe that, by working together, 5G and aviation can — and will — safely coexist,” he said.