A tiny agency that failed to avert a messy fight between airlines and telecommunications companies over 5G airwaves will soon be back in the spotlight as the U.S. looks to deploy more spectrum for ultrafast wireless communications.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration stood by — and tensions with other agencies grew — while a dispute over wireless frequencies nearly brought the U.S. aviation system to a standstill earlier this year, according to documents obtained by public records requests.
The agency, which is supposed to mediate disputes related to spectrum allocation, will be called on again in coming months to referee as commercial operators seek access to frequencies now used by Navy and Army radars that track targets or artillery fire and launch points for missiles.
Officials will have to figure out which frequencies the Pentagon can relinquish, and which can be shared with commercial operators, possibly with restrictions on signal power or hours of use. A decision is expected by next year.
“I think part of the bigger lessons learned that I’ve pulled out of the 5G effort is talk early and then talk early and talk some again,” Michael Weiler, group manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Spectrum Engineering Services division, said Wednesday at a webinar sponsored by the nonprofit government advisory group RTCA Inc.
The Biden administration has pledged to strengthen the NTIA, which cycled through five leaders in the final 20 months of Donald Trump’s presidency. In February, the agency joined the Federal Communications Commission in a pact to improve coordination — and avoid confrontations such as the dispute that had the FAA warning of flight cancellations if mobile providers didn’t keep their new 5G service from interfering with aircraft.
The 5G experience shows the need for cooperation before controversy arises, said Steve Dickson, the former FAA administrator who left the agency at the end of March.
“We’ve just got to work together to make sure that we have smoother roll-outs going forward,” Dickson added. “This won’t be the last spectrum issue that we encounter.”
Alan Davidson, the Biden administration’s NTIA leader, and FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel have pledged to improve coordination. They held the first of what’s expected to be monthly meetings on March 29 and issued a statement saying they would work together on a task that requires “clear communication, open doors, thoughtful listening, and mutual respect.”
Already the NTIA and FCC have begun discussions about forming a national spectrum strategy, and examining stricter standards for receivers that would focus devices such as aircraft navigation systems on a tighter band and reduce conflicts.
The NTIA is supposed to act as a link between the FCC — which apportions airwaves to telephone companies, TV stations and other users so they don’t overlap — and government operations such as the FAA. The mobile computing boom has created heavy demand for the limited supply of frequencies, and has fueled fierce competition among users. Heavy bidders include wireless providers AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc.
The breakdown began to emerge late last year as mobile phone companies were poised to roll out 5G. They had spent more than $80 billion at an FCC auction to gain access to the frequencies to be used. But when the FAA said the service could endanger aircraft the mobile carriers reluctantly agreed to a series of delays and limits on 5G signals.
“The process fell apart,” Tim Farrar, a technology consultant who leads his own firm, Telecom Media Finance Associates Inc., said. “Nobody talked to anybody.”
At the center of the storm sat the NTIA. Founded in 1978, it has about 300 workers and is based in the Herbert C. Hoover Building near the White House in downtown Washington.
Concerns about spectrum allocation have been growing for years. The government’s approach “is no longer effectively serving” U.S. needs, a Commerce Department advisory committee concluded in July 2020.
Disagreement between the FCC and the FAA burst into public view last fall just as pandemic-weary passengers began returning for holiday travel. Emails obtained by Bloomberg News through public records requests showed disdain by the FCC leadership at the time.
“Just ridiculous,” Nicholas Degani, an adviser to the FCC chairman, said in an internal email after the agency got word the Transportation Department had circulated a letter seeking a delay in moves to allow the new 5G service.
In an interview, Degani said exchanges between staff for the FCC and the FAA over months had produced only “very vague” objections about the airwaves use.
The FAA’s mother agency, the Transportation Department, in late 2020 circulated its letter seeking a delay. The NTIA didn’t act.
“We fully expected the NTIA to send our comments to the FCC,” Diana Furchtgott-Roth, the senior Transportation Department official responsible for radio spectrum issues at the time, said in an interview.
Adam Candeub, the NTIA acting administrator at the time, said the FAA’s concerns weren’t forwarded because NTIA experts had found no substance to the concerns.