The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

FCC to auction off wireless spectrum that could interfere with vital weather data, rejecting requests from U.S. House and science agencies

The Federal Communications Commission is prioritizing development of 5G wireless technology over potential negative impacts on weather data, scientists say. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The Federal Communications Commission intends to move ahead with a plan to auction off wireless radio frequencies that scientists say could harm critical satellite data used in weather forecasting.

The FCC said the auction, scheduled Thursday, will proceed despite protests from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, as well as two committees in the U.S. House.

For months, the FCC, supporting the interests of advancing 5G wireless technology, has sparred with NOAA and NASA, which have fought to protect the wireless radio frequencies or “spectrum” along and adjacent to frequencies weather data is passed.

Critical weather data threatened by FCC ‘spectrum’ proposal, Commerce Dept. and NASA say

Last week, the agencies reached an impasse when the FCC rejected a NOAA and NASA requests for further deliberation on spectrum policy.

In a last-ditch effort to intervene, three subcommittee chairs from the House Appropriations Committee, and the House Science Committee, chaired by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) penned separate letters Wednesday to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, asking that the auction be delayed.

But FCC spokesman Brian Hart told The Washington Post in an email that the auction would proceed.

“[Thursday’s] 24 GHz auction is an important step towards securing American leadership in 5G,” he said. “While our nation’s international competitors would undoubtedly be pleased if we delayed this auction of greenfield spectrum at the last minute, the FCC will move forward as planned so that our nation can win the race to 5G and the American people can quickly enjoy the benefits of the next generation of wireless connectivity.”

The Appropriations Committee letter had stressed that a delay “is necessary to allow for further review of potential interference to adjacent band uses that are critical for national security as well as the protection of American lives and property.”

It explained that the NOAA “uses the 23.6-24 GHz spectrum band for microwave sensor-based remote sensing of atmospheric levels of water vapor, which is the single most impactful data stream for accurately forecasting weather. This data is used by NOAA’s National Weather Service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Defense (DOD), in addition to the broader international weather community.”

Without this data, the letter said, forecasting accuracy “would be reduced to the accuracy of forecasts produced in the 1970s.”

It requested that the FCC provide analysis evaluating the impact of auctioning off this spectrum before proceeding and to work cooperatively with federal agencies to ensure “adjacent services” — meaning the flow of satellite weather data — are “fully” protected.

“To be clear, we fully support development of 5G technology and agree with the Administration that it is imperative that our Nation lead the world in its development,” the letter concluded. “However, any support provided to this new technology must be weighed against the cost to other priorities, including national security and the safety of Americans’ lives and property.”

The letter from the House Science Committee reinforced the major points in the letter from the Appropriations Committee.

“There is great concern that the FCC’s noise threshold will allow interference with weather and climate assets,” the letter said.

It concluded, “We are therefore asking for you to delay the action of 5G spectrum until NOAA, NASA, and the DOD have been adequately consulted and their concerns have been addressed.”

The FCC’s Hart said the plan to auction this spectrum has “been on the books since 2007” and that “it is therefore perplexing to be asked to postpone this auction the day before it is going to start.”