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Why Is Everyone Fighting Over Airwaves? Spectrum Wars Explained

Feb. 18, 2021, 10:00 AM

The Biden administration and Democrat-led Federal Communications Commission have inherited several messy fights over scarce airwaves that major telecommunications carriers desperately want to build 5G networks.

Wireless carriers, weather forecasters, automobile makers, and others are competing for limited space on the nation’s airwaves. But the biggest disputes are within government, with the independent FCC pitted against Cabinet agencies including the Pentagon, and Commerce and Transportation departments.

The Trump administration pledged a policy in 2018 but didn’t deliver. Gina Raimondo, Biden’s pick to lead the Commerce Department, has likewise called for a national spectrum strategy.

But to succeed, the Biden administration and FCC will have to balance an array of conflicting government and commercial interests all while under the pressure of building 5G networks ahead of international rivals and fueling a U.S. economy hobbled by the Covid-19 pandemic.

1. How does the government manage spectrum?

The FCC regulates commercial use of spectrum, or the electromagnetic radio frequencies used to transmit sound, data, and video in the U.S. Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration manages government use of the airwaves.

The two agencies have a memorandum of understanding to coordinate the work, but it hasn’t been updated since 2003.

Relations between the two deteriorated during the Trump administration, when the FCC moved to open up more spectrum for 5G use despite fears that doing so would disrupt signals used for GPS navigation, weather forecasting satellites, and auto safety communications.

The Democratic-led FCC is taking steps to mend its relationship with NTIA. The agency on Feb. 1 entered into a memorandum of agreement to work with NTIA and the National Science Foundation on a spectrum innovation initiative. Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel Feb. 17 called for a"healthy interagency coordination process” on spectrum issues.

Raimondo doesn’t want the FCC to make any spectrum decisions without talking to NTIA first.

2. Why is the Pentagon fighting the FCC?

The FCC enraged the Pentagon in April 2020 when it unanimously approved a plan by Ligado Networks to operate a 5G wireless network on a swath of airwaves called the L-Band that has traditionally been reserved for satellite communications.

NTIA, in a May 2020 petition, asked the FCC to reconsider. The FCC has yet to rule. The NTIA also asked for a stay of the order during the reconsideration. The FCC voted that down 3-2, with Rosenworcel and Democrat Geoffrey Starks dissenting, on Jan. 19, the day before Republican Ajit Pai stepped down as chair.

The petition was filed on behalf of the Pentagon and Transportation, which estimate millions of military and civilian GPS receivers, including those used by first responders, could suffer interference. The FCC insists that restrictions placed on Ligado’s network, including limits on 5G signal strength, will protect GPS operations.

3. What about other agencies?

The Transportation department has asked the FCC to put on hold a November 2020 order to repurpose more than half the airwaves known as the 5.9 GHz band for Wi-Fi services.

The airwaves had been reserved for wireless technology aimed at allowing vehicles to communicate with one another to avoid collisions. The FCC reserved some of the band for auto safety communications. Transportation says it’s not enough, despite the fact the technology has never taken off, and that Wi-Fi could still interfere. It wants to hash out a compromise with the FCC and stakeholders.

Power companies, meanwhile, are opposed to an FCC plan to open up another part of the spectrum, the 6 GHz band, to Wi-Fi. Those airwaves are used to manage electric grids and energy pipelines, and opponents, again, are worried about signal interference. The Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have also raised interference concerns.

And the FCC, under Pai, angered the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by auctioning off airwaves for 5G networks that reside near spectrum used by satellites that measure water vapor. NOAA’s concern is that the signal strength companies like Verizon Communications Inc. will be able to use to run their networks may result in inaccurate weather forecasts.

4. What’s next?

It’s still early in the Biden administration, and it remains to be seen how it will work to resolve all the spectrum issues it inherited.

One positive step, for now, could be updating the nearly two-decade-old MOU between the FCC and NTIA on spectrum use.

“It seems appropriate for us to examine lessons learned over these 20 years and see if improvements can be made,” Raimondo said in a Senate Commerce Committee questionnaire.

To Learn More:

—From Bloomberg Law

FCC Ends 5G Airwaves Auction After Record $81 Billion in Bids (1)

Musk Battles Billionaires Over Future of Dish Satellite Airwaves

Wi-Fi Spectrum Battle Spotlights Struggle for Scarce Airwaves

—From Bloomberg News

Biden Pick for Commerce Chief Calls for U.S. 5G Airwaves Policy

Wi-Fi Gets 5G Airwave Boost as Carmakers Lose Spectrum Fight (1)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Reid in Washington at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com, Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com

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