The Trump Administration Goes to War over 5G, with Itself

(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.


From Teamwork to “The Apprentice,” Spectrum Policy Has Broken Down.


Coordinating the rollout of new spectrum for commercial use with federal agencies is always a contentious process. Federal agencies are focused on their individual missions, and changes in the spectrum rules for neighboring commercial bands can impact federal operations. Like a neighborhood housing association, federal agencies can always find reasons to veto any change that impacts the neighborhood. To avoid this situation, Congress and the Executive branch created processes for how federal agencies are supposed to work with each other to resolve spectrum disagreements. It created an agency called the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to coordinate spectrum use among federal agencies. To limit delays and keep America on the path toward progress, Congress also vested the FCC — an independent agency that reports to Congress rather than the President — with the power to make final spectrum decisions. This recognizes the FCC as the expert agency best suited to see the “big picture” on spectrum while still balancing the legitimate interference concerns of other agencies. 


It takes strong supervision from the White House to force agencies to work together. Unfortunately, this is not exactly a Trump Administration strength. To the contrary, by nearly every insider account, President Trump seems more interested in agencies fighting with each other to win his approval than in the details of spectrum policy. Unsurprisingly, the already contentious process of grudging cooperation between the agencies on spectrum coordination has completely broken down on 5G. Things got so bad that the head of NTIA quit after only 18 months, sharply criticizing the increasing fractiousness of the federal spectrum process days before resigning. Last December, the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Commerce Committee sent a rare bipartisan rebuke to the Government Accountability Office asking for an investigation into how the federal spectrum coordination process became so broken and how to fix it.


The Ligado controversy illustrates this breakdown. The licenses Ligado holds include several that operate close to (but not on) the band used for GPS. When the current company acquired the spectrum rights in 2015, it began a process of working with various stakeholders and federal agencies to resolve long-standing interference concerns. Based on negotiations among stakeholders and numerous engineering studies — including two separate federal studies, one conducted by the Defense Department and the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the other by the Department of Transportation and NTIA — the FCC sent a preliminary decision to NTIA for federal review in the fall of 2019. The FCC required extensive modifications to Ligado’s license to protect GPS, including a substantial reduction in power and that Ligado give up use of a block of spectrum closest to GPS as a “guardband” to further protect GPS. If, as the Defense Department likes to say, Ligado is like a neighbor playing loud music next door, the FCC solution was to take away Ligado’s amplifiers and move them two and a half blocks down the street.


Nevertheless, the DoD remained unmollified. It demanded that the FCC adopt a new, far more restrictive standard for measuring harmful interference. Ligado vigorously protested DoD’s unprecedented and unsupported demand, noting that if DoD’s precision guidance systems were fragile enough to need such a restrictive standard then anyone could disrupt them using equipment purchased from Amazon. Rather than give the DoD a de facto veto on 5G spectrum, Chairman Pai put the Ligado decision to a Commission vote. The 5-0 vote in favor, from an FCC that has frequently split along party lines, reflects the FCC commissioners’ confidence in the agency’s engineers, who have been successfully resolving tense spectrum disputes for decades.


The Defense Department Goes To War With the Future of 5G at Stake.


In response, the Defense Department launched a “shock and awe” campaign, warning that the nation’s GPS systems will suffer serious interference unless someone reverses the FCC decision. While Ligado itself is not the only part of the 5G rollout, the principle that we have a single spectrum policy run by the FCC is key to our success. If four years of engineering analysis is not enough to carry the day, the FCC becomes effectively paralyzed.


The FCC understands the importance of GPS and other crucial federal and public safety operations. Protecting these types of services from harmful interference was a major reason for creating the FCC, and it is part of its regulatory DNA. The FCC’s engineers have a well-earned reputation for resolving spectrum disputes in ways that both protect existing services and promote wireless innovation. It’s why the U.S. leads the world in wireless innovation. Every spectrum fight is contentious, but if federal agencies can veto any FCC decision they don’t like, then the race to 5G is effectively over — and we’ve lost it to ourselves.


Stay tuned . . .

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