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5G’s biggest enemy? Government ineptitude.

5G’s biggest enemy? Government ineptitude.

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

CHICAGO TRIBUNE |

JAN 21, 2022 AT 2:05 PM


Opinion content—editorials, columns and guest commentaries—is created independent of news reporting and is exclusive to subscribers.


A 5G cellular tower stands as a Korean Air Boeing 777 plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 19, 2022.

A 5G cellular tower stands as a Korean Air Boeing 777 plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 19, 2022. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP)


With any new technology, there are going to be glitches and potholes. But when the public and private sectors have had more than ample time to study, troubleshoot and incorporate a tech breakthrough into the everyday infrastructure of American life, those glitches should be rare — or even nonexistent.


In the case of 5G, the technology has been brewing for years. South Korea began working on the 5G concept as far back as 2008. Samsung created the first 5G network in 2013. By 2019, cellular phone networks had begun deploying 5G around the world. Verizon launched the technology at selected sites in and around Chicago’s downtown April 3, 2019.


5G, short for the fifth generation of wireless, should prove every bit the game-changer it’s been billed to be. Downloads happen lightning-fast, and the amount of content that can be relayed is a massive ramp-up from previous generations of wireless technology. It’s a godsend to every cellphone user, and a technology that promises to inject as much as $73 billion into the U.S. economy by 2023 and $484 billion by 2030.


First, though, some potholes must be navigated. A big one surfaced last week when Verizon and AT&T reluctantly agreed to delay expansion of their new 5G cellular service after airlines and aviation regulators flagged the possibility that 5G would disrupt cockpit instrumentation.


That delay came on top of a two-week hold on 5G expansion that the cellular providers had agreed to at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration. Because of 5G-related concerns, last Wednesday roughly 300 flights to and from the U.S. were canceled, including British Airways Boeing 777 service from London’s Heathrow Airport into O’Hare International Airport.


Everyone agrees air safety is paramount. But this delay in the 5G rollout was maddeningly avoidable. The culprit? Government ineptitude.


The FAA has had years to ready the airline industry for the advent of 5G, and idly sat on the sidelines. Then late last year, just as cellular carriers were on the cusp of an expanded 5G rollout, the FAA said, whoa, we’ve got a problem. The airwaves that 5G services rely on are close to the frequencies used by altimeters, which determine the distance between airliners and the ground. That’s an important measurement for pilots, and even more critical when visibility is limited.


The FAA claimed the proximity between the frequencies used by 5G and altimeters compromised safety. But that wasn’t the conclusion from the Federal Communications Commission, which after years of studying and testing had already determined there shouldn’t be any conflict between the frequencies used by 5G and plane altimeters.


It also wasn’t the conclusion of more than three dozen other countries that authorized use of the 5G frequency — and encountered no instances of harmful interference with plane altimeters. The U.S. also deploys a buffer space between the 5G and altimeter frequencies that’s twice as large as the airwave gaps used in other major countries.


Nevertheless, as often happens with the feds, a stalemate ensued that led to the 5G delay — a stalemate that could have been avoided by substantive, fact-driven dialogue between aviation and telecommunications regulators long before the rollout and any necessity for annoying flight cancellations. Federal agencies that oversee critical elements to America’s functioning and future need to collaborate rather than squabble. And they need to do so long before a crisis emerges.


Without that collaboration, both innovation and commerce get sidetracked needlessly in ways that damage the economy — at a time when the pandemic has already inflicted so much economic damage. It’s on the shoulders of the Biden administration to take a hard look at this interagency standoff and ensure it doesn’t happen again.


Omicron is enough of a challenge right now. America doesn’t need incompetence in Washington making the national recovery even tougher.

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