Radio Amateur Hour

Airlines for America, the lobbying group that appears to control the Federal Aviation Administration, is demanding further delays and restrictions on the rollout of 5G mobile service in C Band spectrum. The transfer of this spectrum from government to commercial use has been underway in one form or another since 2009, when the National Broadband Plan identified an innovation hampering “spectrum crunch.”

The spectrum crunch is simply a shortfall between supply and demand around radio-based data services. The architects of the Plan realized that it could only be resolved by transferring under-utilized radio resources from public to private hands, in part to enable greater technical efficiencies.

The FAA stands alone in pretending that this government-wide mandate shouldn’t apply to its sector.  Its reasons probably have to do with agency’s privileged history. While other radio users have improved efficiency, robustness, and resiliency over the years, FAA has continued to certify obsolete equipment on the apparent belief that others would ensure the success of its mission.

What’s Supposed to Happen

Pawning your workload off on others may be normal for the Richie Rich of regulatory agencies, but at some point the FAA will run out of lackeys and stooges. The agency will soon need to admit that it has allowed – and in some cases encouraged – the aviation industry to stagnate with respect to radio technology and radio-based applications.

We can’t expect every federal agency to develop internal radio expertise. That would require duplication of effort on a grand scale, so a single agency – the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) – was created to serve as the guru of telecommunications for the federal government.

NTIA has fantastic expertise, especially in its Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS) based in Boulder, Colorado. NTIA is also tasked with interfacing with the FCC, the agency that oversees radios for the private sector.

An Amazing Piece of Self-Harm

The A4A demand to the White House issued on the 17th is a remarkable piece of work in three respects. First, bypasses NTIA and goes directly to the White House for help with its radio dilemma. So what should be a staff discussion between FAA and NTIA about safety margins, radio propagation, and radio risk analysis becomes a media fire.

Second, A4A is clearly doing FAA’s dirty work. It forecasts: “harmful impacts on the aviation industry, traveling public, supply chain, vaccine distribution, our workforce and broader economy” unless the White House imposes its will on independent regulatory agencies. The claim is made without a single piece of data to shore it up.

And third, the FAA/A4A letter demonstrates an absolute and total lack of understanding of radio interference. It demands nothing more than increased distance between 5G base stations (incorrectly calling them “towers” when they’re single antennas) and runways. That’s not the way radio interference works.

Echoing the Lunatic Fringe

Cellular networks moderate their power to meet the needs of radio receivers regardless of their distance from radio transmitters. Move the antennas further apart and they simply increase their power to make communication successful, just like people do to communicate with each other over long distances.

This prescription brings to mind the demands of the 5G truthers who hector and harass city councils drafting zoning regulations for small cells. This cadre – closely allied with the anti-vaccine and anti-mask movement – rushes into technical issues without requisite training and genuine research. It’s no wonder that they blame the COVID-19 pandemic on 5G.

The FAA’s bizarre communication appears to be a reaction to its recent discovery that the runway braking system in Boeing 787 jets doesn’t work without feedback from radio altimeters. Boeing’s newest widebody jets can’t tell when they’re on the ground without radio information.

Shambolic Engineering

You might think that 400,000 pounds of weight on the wheels would be a clue enough, but you’d be wrong. This problem is unlikely to be as serious as FAA imagines: there is very little opportunity for 5G radio signals to overpower airplane radio signals bouncing from the underside of a plane off the runway a few feet away back to the plane.

Instead of behaving like a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing, FAA needs to act like a responsible federal agency. It should share every one of its concerns with NTIA and trust the process to work them out. Letters like the one A4A sent to everyone except its proper partner do no good.

The January 17th letter from FAA via A4A to the White House, the Transportation Secretary, the FCC, and itself exposes aviation’s cluelessness. If aviation is out to further erode the public’s willingness to fly in the midst of the Omicron wave of the pandemic, they’re succeeding admirably.