The turf war between government agencies over 5G could delay innovation and harm America’s international leadership in the technology.
Last month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wrapped up its 24GHz spectrum auction, receiving $2 billion in bids from companies looking to capitalize on increased penetration of the faster, lower‐latency wireless technology known as 5G. Preparation for the auction has been in place since 2015, yet just weeks before its finalization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an arm of the Department of Commerce (DOC), and NASA called on the FCC to delay the auction to investigate the potential that 5G could interfere with weather forecasting. This late call was misguided and overblown; the FCC took proper precautions to ensure that Americans can enjoy fast internet and accurate weather forecasts at the same time.
NOAA and NASA worry that the sale of this frequency could interfere with the 23.8GHz signal used to measure water vapor, a vital aspect of storm and hurricane forecasting. Should interference occur, NOAA and NASA warn, forecasting abilities would be reduced by 30%, degrading their prediction accuracy to the worst it has been since 1980.
However, the range at which the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) picks up microwaves from water vapor is between 23.6–24 GHz. The lowest bound for the commercial spectrum auction is 24.25GHz, providing a significant buffer range by which to prevent interference. The likelihood of signals interfering is not only very low, but even if it happens on rare occasions , the interference reach nowhere near the dramatic levels claimed by the DOC.
Problems like the 5G weather forecasting debacle stem from the divergence of incentives for different agencies and the communication failures that occur between experts of different fields. Agencies like NOAA have a low tolerance for failure and are prone to seeing expanding their own mission and capabilities as interchangeable with advancing the public interest, without necessarily considering the opportunity costs. Each agency’s priorities become its sole focus leading to interdepartmental and cross‐disciplinary conflicts that undermine sound and efficient policy making, and could make it difficult to maintain a competitive edge against rapidly rising national competitors like China.
While it claims to be committed to the effective rollout of 5G, the DOC has nonetheless hampered the technology’s advancement at various stages. Most notably, it has weakened the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which have approval authority over the FCC’s plans to implement 5G. The DOC’s actions have left the NTIA without leadership and a lack of coordination on 5G policy. As a result, a myriad of distractions have blossomed. The reason 5G is a national priority is not just because of commercial gain, but also due to its powerful potential as infrastructure for a wide range of next generation technologies that range from improving medicine to transportation to defense.
Is it any wonder that hostile agents, such as Russia, are so keen to spread misinformation about such a vital technology? The plans to advance 5G have been a high priority for nearly 5 years, with the FCC beginning its inquiry into the 24GHz spectrum back in October 2014. By confusing the public and delaying the rollout, an interjection about weather forecasting concerns so late into the 5G auction process aids our geopolitical rivals.
Getting various agencies to understand shared national priorities, to work together to advance them in a way that respects the technical insights of each, and to do so while never putting their own departmental goals above those of the nation is a difficult task. This task, however, is of the utmost important as the intensity of global competition for next generation technologies increases and America’s leadership in those fields is less secure. In order to achieve this, interdisciplinary expertise is required that stretches across departments, that can provide well‐informed, unbiased technical expertise that does not fall under the biases of any given department.
The DOC’s experts understand their own weather forecasting technologies in great detail, but that does not mean that they understand 5G well, nor appreciate its importance to the national interest. Congress should ignore these late calls from an agency that does not appreciate the protective measures the FCC has put in place during the rollout of 5G. The sky is not falling, and weather forecasting will not go away.