The FAA Delays More Than Flights

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced last month that Verizon and AT&T have agreed to delay some C-Band 5G usage until July 2023, as air carriers work to ensure they will not face interference. Licensed spectrum forms the core of mobile networks, whose applications in fields like national security, education, health care and business offer technological advancements like the Internet of Things and greater and more efficient data use. Wireless networks need more capabilities and capacity at a time of ever-increasing consumer demand for mobile data.

Unfortunately, although the newly auctioned 5G spectrum can meet some of this demand, consumers will have to wait even longer to access it, and carriers will likely have to wait to provide it.

Despite this spectrum being auctioned off more than a year ago, the FAA raised needless concerns about the safety of 5G services, pressuring wireless providers to delay their rollout. This move will deny 5G deployment to the detriment of consumer interests. The FAA reasoned that operating the part of the spectrum associated with the 5G network near airports may interfere with the ability of radio altimeters to correctly measure and relay a plane’s altitude to pilots.

The private sector acquiesced, providing multiple delays to buy the agency time to act in good faith. However, the FAA’s premise cannot point to any cases where 5G has interfered with radio altimeters, boiling down its position to a “what-if?” On the contrary, case studies from Europe and Japan suggest that interference is non-existent. Now that the agency has failed to meet its deadline, the FAA is yet again hampering progress.

Last February, AT&T and Verizon collectively paid the Federal Communications Commission almost $70 billion in a C-band bidding war to acquire the portion of spectrum necessary to provide consumers with 5G service. But while the FAA finishes clearing planes and airports for risk of interference and overseeing the industry’s retrofitting of their aircraft, their perpetual stance has placed the regulated parties under a state of duress.

As buyers, AT&T and Verizon are left with few options other than to scale back where they deploy the 5G network or to sit and watch their property’s value depreciate. Either option leaves them unable to tap into their property’s fullest income-producing potential — setting a bad precedent for future businesses as buyers. Additionally, this status quo will make it ever harder for carriers to compete with other providers in the market like T-Mobile.

These unfavorable outcomes for businesses will inevitably be passed on to consumers.

The 5G network itself as a product is more efficient than 4G for today’s smart devices, a fact not lost onto other countries as they compete with the U.S. to dominate and influence the market. 5G can carry exponentially higher amounts of data than 4G, enabling download speeds on the 5G network to be up to 60 times faster than on a 4G network. Latency is also far lower for 5G, allowing for improved performance and efficiency of 5G services.

Many innovations depend on access to the 5G network. For example, 5G networks can make Smart Cities and homes more possible, safer and better equipped to meet our needs. First responders would also have more tools and capabilities, and 5G’s lower latency will enable urban traffic to flow faster and more smoothly.

Because these innovations all use 5G networks to operate, products like self-driving cars, drones and virtual reality technology will bring jobs and investment as they push new products to market. One proposal measured over a seven-year period estimates that fully incorporating 5G would increase economic output by $533 billion, add $1.2 trillion in consumer welfare benefits, and create 435,000 new living-wage jobs.

As reflected by the United States’ No. 1 ranking in the Global Entrepreneurship Index, the U.S. generally provides the best environment to enable businesses and entrepreneurs to invest with confidence. Unfortunately, the FAA’s inflexibility is set to upend this. The repercussions to the supply, antitrust and depreciation can all translate into higher prices for consumer access, and unequal opportunity for whom can access it altogether.

While 5G technology can create trillions of dollars in consumer benefits by allowing new services, products and applications, frustrating access to these applications and services means denying what mutual benefits would otherwise arise. The FAA can avoid this by instead making a good-faith effort to better collaborate with stakeholders to resolve its objection.  

James Nardei is a policy intern at the American Consumer Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

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