(A somewhat sorter version of this appeared on the blog of my employer Public Knowledge)
If you have followed anything in the wireless world, you will have heard about 5G – the next generation of wireless technology. Technologists promise it will revolutionize our lives by enabling everything from gigabit mobile downloads to self-driving cars. Conspiracy theorists falsely warn it causes coronavirus and kills bees. Perhaps most impressively, however, 5G bridges the hyper-partisan divide in Washington, D.C. Ask anyone who does wireless policy and they will tell you that America absolutely needs to roll out 5G as quickly as possible, usually with dire warnings added that if we don’t move quickly, China will end up “winning the race to 5G.” President Trump himself has repeatedly emphasized that he wants the United States to lead in 5G and even 6G. True, 6G doesn’t actually exist, but this enthusiasm shows how seriously the Trump Administration takes moving forward on the Federal Communications Commission’s “5G Fast Plan” to open huge swaths of wireless spectrum necessary to support 5G technology.
It may therefore surprise you that the one discordant note in the 5G chorus over the last three years keeps coming from within the Trump Administration itself. Federal agencies have mounted an increasingly public campaign against the FCC and the wireless industry. It’s to the point that every FCC announcement of new 5G spectrum is now met with a different federal agency’s announcement that the FCC’s decision will interfere with vital life-protecting services. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) claims that 5G will cause serious interference to weather prediction (it hasn’t). The Department of Transportation claims that 5G will interfere with collision avoidance systems (again, despite recent FCC authorizations for use of this spectrum to boost connectivity during the COVID-19 lockdown, it hasn’t).
Things have now come to an all-out war between the Department of Defense and the FCC, with the Defense Department claiming that a recent decision by the FCC (on a 5-0 bipartisan vote) resolving a decades-long dispute with a company now called Ligado will interfere with vital GPS operations. (The DoD runs the nation’s GPS satellites for military operations, despite the public’s ubiquitous use of GPS.) While the Ligado decision is only a small part of the “5G Fast Plan,” it has split the Trump Administration at the Cabinet level – where Secretary of State Pompeo and Attorney General Barr have supported the FCC and Defense Secretary Esper has attacked the decision. This turf battle has spilled over into Congress, with members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committee issuing dueling statements with members of the Commerce Committee (which has jurisdiction over the FCC). Unless contained, this 5G civil war threatens to paralyze the FCC spectrum process and the rollout of new spectrum for 5G.