Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation: Finding the Right Frequency: 5G Deployment & Aviation Safety

Former Administrator Stephen M. Dickson (August 12, 2019 - March 31, 2022)

As Prepared

Good morning Chair Larsen, Chair DeFazio, Ranking Members Graves and Graves, and members of the subcommittee.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the FAA’s efforts to keep aviation safe in the presence of 5G C-band wireless technology. We have continually maintained that—through mutual cooperation—5G and aviation can safely coexist.

We have the safest aviation system in the world, and we don’t take that for granted. We have achieved this because we take actions to mitigate known and potential risks to safety. It’s why the FAA has been involved in a sustained effort since well before the 2020 spectrum auction to highlight and now mitigate potential 5G interference with critical flight systems.

I want to thank this committee for your help and support of aviation safety during this period. Our job would be significantly more difficult without the continued support of this committee. We also appreciate the wireless companies voluntarily providing us with the data we need to maintain safety while minimizing flight disruptions during this rollout.

We are always concerned about radio frequency interference when it comes to aviation infrastructure, but in 2018, a new potential threat emerged. The MOBILE NOW Act directed the FCC to evaluate the feasibility of auctioning spectrum adjacent to the band where radio altimeters operate.

The FAA and the aviation industry urged caution. Boeing and the Air Line Pilots Association in filings to the FCC in 2018 called for more analysis. The FAA collaborated with or supported research efforts that revealed 5G operations could significantly degrade or completely interrupt radio altimeter operation during critical phases of flight.

In December 2020, the Acting Deputy DOT Secretary and I sent a letter to the NTIA outlining our concerns about aviation safety, backed up by the recent studies. We asked that the auction be delayed so that we could conduct a safety risk assessment and identify mitigations.

Ultimately, the auction occurred, and two of the wireless companies that acquired the C-band spectrum scheduled the initial deployment in early December 2021. We engaged with our interagency partners throughout the year in an effort to access the information necessary to inform aviation safety mitigations.

Ultimately, as the deployment approached in late 2021, Secretary Buttigieg and I requested two pauses from the wireless companies until mid-January 2022. During the delay, we established a direct relationship with the wireless companies to receive the necessary information—transmitter location, power level and signal shape characteristics—to begin making an aviation safety assessment. The wireless companies also agreed to keep towers turned off around airports that have low-visibility approaches.

The safety model we developed—along with the new data we had access to from the telecommunications companies—allowed the FAA to determine which combination of altimeters and aircraft could be cleared to land in low-visibility conditions for specific runways at airports with 5G towers nearby.

On January 19, 2022, the wireless companies activated 5G C Band service in many of the 46 markets. Our analysis of the wireless company data has allowed us to target anticipated problem areas more precisely, reducing the impact to both industries. While we have avoided significant disruption to commercial aviation, we recognize that some communities and operations have been affected because we have not been able to fully mitigate interference risk for certain radio altimeters.

We know from long experience that early and open data exchange between everyone—stakeholders and regulators— has proven to be critical to identify and mitigate safety risks. Aviation remains the safest form of transportation because of our commitment to a data-driven process, and we will lean on it as we set new standards for altimeter performance in the new environment created by the 5G C-band deployment.

Spectrum is a limited resource, but the demand is infinite and will likely increase in coming years. The FAA’s primary concern is and will always be the safety of
the aviation system. But we firmly believe that, by working together, 5G and aviation can—and will—safely coexist.

Moving forward, we are also ready to work across industry and with our Federal partners on a more thoughtful, inclusive and collaborative approach to future spectrum policy and initiatives.

Thank you for the chance to provide this update.