Is 5G Stuck Between the Department of Commerce and a Hard-hitting FCC?

12/18/2019 - Blog

The FCC just wrapped its largest-ever spectrum auction yesterday, meeting its net revenue requirements by securing nearly $1.5 billion in bidding from wireless companies.

While Auction 103 for spectrum in the upper bands of 37, 39, and 47 GHz concluded on December 12th without much opposition, the same cannot be said for Auction 102, of spectrum in the 24 GHz frequency band.

A public discussion continues to cloud the FCC's plan to expeditiously unleash more spectrum to power a nationwide 5G launch, and it centers on the already-concluded Auction 102.

NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and their overseeing body, the Department of Commerce, backed by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, are jointly calling for a halt on the use of 24 GHz spectrum blocks by wireless companies "until vital weather forecasting operations are protected."

Does 5G Threaten the Forecasting of Extreme Weather Events?

Not exactly.

While public discussion often refers to 5G technology as the existential threat to weather forecasting, it is in fact the use of the 24GHz spectrum band that may allegedly pose a risk.

That is because water vapor energy is detected by weather forecasting satellites operating at a frequency of 23.8GHz. Should wireless companies move ahead with operations in the 24 GHz band, only a 250-megahertz (MHz) buffer will separate 5G transmissions and weather satellites.

Chart 1

Source: International Telecommunication Union

Forecasters worry that even a "small bleed" of 5G transmissions into the adjacent band used for water vapor signal detection can potentially interfere with, and degrade weather forecasts back to 1980s-level accuracy.

"If 5G were in place during Hurricane Sandy, and we had the interference that many of us expect, we might not have seen nine days out that the storm was going to make a left," argued Marshall Shepherd, Director of the University of Georgia's Atmospheric Sciences Program. "We might have only known three days out that the storm was going to make a hard left into New York and New Jersey."​​​​​​​

Similarly, former Republican member of the House of Representatives, and now NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine warned that, "instead of giving a seven-day forecast, you’re going to get a two- or three-day weather forecast.”

A Muddy War of Words Thickens

Weeks after Administrator Bridenstine's comments, Senators Maria Cantwell and Ron Wyden (D-OR) penned a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging him to not issue licenses to winning bidders of Auction 102 "until the FCC approves the passive band protection limits that NASA and the NOAA determine are necessary to protect critical satellite‐based measurements of atmospheric water vapor needed to forecast the weather."

A swift and strong response came 6 days later from the Executive Vice President of CTIA – The Wireless Association, Brad Gillen, alleging the senators' argument is "an absurd claim with no science behind it."

A week after, on May 28th, Auction 102 of spectrum blocks within the 24GHz band concluded with nearly $2 billion generated in winning bids.

FCC Chairman Pai did eventually respond publicly to the senators' letter and request, asserting that "adopting the limits suggested by the Department of Commerce would undeniably render the 24 GHz band unusable for 5G."

"We do not need to choose between 5G and critical weather forecasting tools," he continued. "Sound and sober engineering analyses lead us to the firm belief that the United States can have both."

The Promise of 5G

As the current and previous administrations see it, "the race to 5G is a race America must win."

And it's easy to understand why.

For the commercial real estate industry alone, 5G technology promises incredible benefits:

  • From a security standpoint, 5G would enhance the battery life and reduce costs for use of remote devices in home and property security, as the new technology requires 90% less energy than 4G;
  • Property leasing becomes an attractive revenue source, as 5G would utilize small cell towers placed on rooftops, inside buildings, or on their exteriors, thus eliminating the need for large cell towers;
  • A true Internet of Things could become reality, as real estate fixtures, appliances, and even building materials would be connected, and automatically report on their performance, allowing property managers and investors to gather unprecedented levels of data on property usage.

Full Steam Ahead Despite Reservations

On December 5th, a mere 5 days before the start of Auction 103, Senator Cantwell expressed to her fellow Committee members that “we are not going to short-change weather information or NASA. They’re too darn important. And they have to have forecasting.”

While some of the spectrums just sold at Auction 103 are used for satellite observations of precipitation, sea ice, and clouds, neither the NOAA nor the Senator have voiced concerns over interference on accurate weather data gathering within these spectrums.

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