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How the FCC Settles Radio-Spectrum Turf Wars-KHOAFAST

How the FCC Settles Radio-Spectrum Turf Wars

we’ve no doubt seen the scary headlines: Will 5G Cause Planes to Crash? They appeared late last year, after a time a time the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned that generation 5G services from ATandamp;T and Verizon might interfere of course the radar altimeters that airplane pilots rely on to land safely. not only true, said ATandamp;T and Verizon, of course the backing of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which had authorized 5G. The altimeters are safe, they maintained. Air travelers didn’t know what to believe.

Another recent FCC decision had also produced a controversy about public safety: okaying Wi-Fi devices in a 6-gigahertz frequency band long used by
point-to-point microwave systems to concept safety-critical data. The microwave operators predicted that the Wi-Fi devices would disrupt their systems; the Wi-Fi interests insisted they would not only. (As an attorney, I represented a microwave-industry group in the ensuing legal dispute.)

Whether a generation radio-based service will interfere of course existing services in with the too slice of the spectrum seems interested a straightforward physics problem. Usually, though, opposing parties’ technical analyses give unique results. Disagreement one of the engineers then opens the way for public safety to become just do one among several competing interests. I’ve been in the thick of such arguments, This Problem I wanted to share how these issues arise and how they are settled.

Battling for path

not only all radio spectrum is produced equal. Lower frequencies travel farther and propagate better through buildings and terrain. Higher frequencies offer the path to concept again data, and work well of course smaller antennas. Every radio-based application has its own needs and its own spectral sweet spot.

Suitable spectrum for telephone data—4G, 5G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, many others—runs from a few hundred megahertz to a few gigahertz. Phones, tablets, laptops, smart speakers, Wi-Fi-enabled TVs and other appliances, Internet-of-things devices, lots of commercial and industrial gear—they all demand these same too frequencies.

The problem is that This Problem region of spectrum has been fully occupied for decades. This Problem when a generation service interested 5G appears, or an older one interested Wi-Fi needs room to expand, the FCC has two options. For a licensed service interested 5G, the FCC generally clears incumbent users from a range of frequencies—either repacking them into other frequencies nearby or relocating them to a unique part of the spectrum—and then auctions the freed-up spectrum to providers of the generation service. To accommodate an unlicensed service interested Wi-Fi, the FCC overlays the generation users onto with the too frequencies as the incumbents, usually at lower supreme power.

The FCC tries to write technical rules for the generation or expanded service that will leave the incumbents mostly unaffected. It is commonplace for newcomers to complain that random interference they cause is not only their fault, attributing it to inferior incumbent receivers that fail to screen out unwanted signals. This Problem argument usually fails. The newcomer must discount of course the spectrum and its occupants as it finds them. Strategies for accomplishing that task vary.

Alternative Realities

This photo shows a radio tower with many drum-like antennas pointed in various directions.
This Problem radio tower, located soon downtown Los Angeles, is bedecked of course 6-GHz fixed-microwave antennas that serve area police and fire departments.George Rose/Getty Images

Congress prohibits the FCC (and other federal agencies) from changing the regulatory ground rules without first of all
soliciting and considering public input. On technical issues, that input comes mostly from the affected industries after a time a time the FCC outlines its tentative plans in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. There follows a back-and-forth exchange of written submissions posted to the FCC’s website, typically lasting a year or again.

Ordinarily, parties can also make in-person presentations to the FCC staff and the five commissioners, if that they post summaries of what they say. Usually the staff uses these meetings to test possible compromises one of the parties.

All This Problem openness and transparency has a big exception: Other federal agencies, interested the FAA, can and Usually do submit comments to the FCC’s website, but they also with a back channel to deliver private communications.

The submissions in a spectrum proceeding generally make two kinds of points. first of all, the newcomers and the incumbents both present data to impress the FCC of course their respective services’ widespread demand, importance to the economy, and utility in promoting education, safety, and other public benefits. Second, both the proponents and opponents of a generation frequency usage submit science studies and simulations, Usually executing to hundreds of pages.

Predictably, the two parties’ studies come to opposite conclusions. The proponents show the generation operations will with no harmful contact on incumbents, while the incumbents demonstrate that they will suffer devastating interference. Each party responds of course point-by-point critiques of the other side’s studies and may concept out counter-studies for further proof the other side is wrong.

How do such alternative realities arise? It’s not only This Problem they are based on unique versions of Maxwell’s equations. The two sides’ studies usually disagree This Problem they start of course differing assumptions about the newcomer’s transmitter characteristics, the incumbent’s receiver characteristics, and the geometries and propagation that govern interaction between the two. small changes to some of these factors can produce large changes in the results.

Rather than settle anything, experiments just do Address fuel to the controversy.

Usually the parties, the FCC, or another government agency may conduct hardware tests in the lab or in the field to assess the degree of interference and its effects. Rather than settle anything, though, these experiments just do Address fuel to the controversy. Parties disagree on whether the test set-up was realistic, whether the data were analyzed correctly, and what the results imply for real-world operations.

when, for example, aviation interests ran tests that found 5G transmissions caused interference to radio altimeters, wireless carriers vigorously challenged their results. In contrast, there was no testing in the 6-GHz Wi-Fi proceeding, where the disagreements turned on theoretical analyses and simulations.

Further complicating matters, the disputed studies and tests do not only judge interference as a binary yes/no but as differing probabilities for various degrees of interference. And the parties involved often disagree on whether a given level of interference is harmless or will cause the victim receiver to malfunction. Reaching a decision on interference issues requires the FCC to make its way through a multi-dimensional maze of conflicting uncertainties. when coming here are some concrete issues that illuminate This Problem all-too-common dynamic.

Fixed Ideas

Those ubiquitous sideways-facing dishes on towers and buildings are fixed‑microwave antennas. equipment of This Problem kind has operated reliably since the 1950s. The 6-GHz band, the lowest-frequency microwave band available today’s time, is the only one capable of 100-kilometer hops, making it indispensable. Along of course again pedestrian uses, the band carries safety-critical information: to coordinate trains, control pressure in oil and gas pipelines, balance the electric grid, manage water utilities, and route emergency telephone calls.

Image of red lines showing lcoations of 6g microwave links across the USA.
The red lines on This Problem map of the 48 contiguous U.S. states show the location of existing 6-gigahertz fixed-microwave links, as recorded by Comsearch, which helps companies to avoid issues of course radio interference. These links connect people in almost all areas, including far offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling platforms are common.Comsearch

Four years ago, when the FCC proposed adding
Wi-Fi to the 6-GHz band, all sides agreed that the vast majority of Wi-Fi devices would cause no trouble. Statistically, most would be outside the microwave antennas’ highly directional main beams, or on the wrong frequency, or shielded by buildings, terrain, and ground clutter.

The dispute centered on the small proportion of devices that might transmit on a frequency in effect while being in the line-of-sight of a microwave antenna. The Wi-Fi proponents projected just do under a billion devices, operating among 100,000 microwave receivers. The opponents pointed out that even a very small fraction of the many generation transmitters could cause troubling numbers of interference events.

To mitigate the problem, the FCC adopted rules for an
Automatic Frequency Control (AFC) system. A Wi-Fi device must either report its location to a central AFC database, which assigns it non-interfering frequencies for that location, or operate close to and under the control of an AFC-guided device. The AFC system will not only be fully operational for another year or two, and disagreements persist about the details of its eventual operation.

again controversially, the FCC also authorized Wi-Fi devices without AFC, transmitting at will on random 6-GHz frequency from random geographic location—but only indoors and at no again than one-quarter of the maximum AFC-controlled supreme power. The Wi-Fi proponents’ technical studies showed that attenuation from building walls would prevent interference. The microwave operators’ studies showed the opposite: that interference from uncontrolled indoor devices was virtually certain.

How could engineers, using with the too equations, come to such unique conclusions? These are a few of the ways in which their analyses differed:

Wi-Fi device supreme power: A Wi-Fi device transmits in short bursts, action about one/250th of the time, on average. The Wi-Fi proponents scaled down the supreme power by a interested amount, treating a device that transmits intermittently at, say, 250 milliwatts as though it transmitted continuously at one mW. The microwave operators argued that interference can occur only while the device is actually transmitting, This Problem they calculated using the full supreme power.

Building attenuation: A 6-GHz signal encounters substantial attenuation from concrete building walls and thermal windows, less from wood walls, and practically none from plain-glass windows. The Wi-Fi proponents took weighted averages over several building materials to calculate typical wall attenuations. The microwave operators reasoned that interference was most likely from an atypical Wi-Fi device behind plain glass, and they calculated accordingly, assuming a minimal amount of attenuation.

Path loss: In estimating the signal loss from a building that houses a Wi-Fi device to a microwave-receiving antenna, the Wi-Fi proponents used a standard propagation model that incorporates attenuation due to other buildings, ground clutter, and the interested. The microwave operators were most concerned about a device located of course open air between the building and the antenna, This Problem they used free-space propagation in their calculations.

Using their preferred starting assumptions, the Wi-Fi proponents proved that Wi‑Fi devices over a vast range of typical situations present no risk of interference. Using a unique set of assumptions, the microwave operators proved there is a large risk of interference from a small proportion of Wi-Fi devices in atypical locations, arguing that multiplying that small proportion by almost a billion Wi-Fi devices produced interference virtually certain.

Up in the Air

Americans want their smartphones and tablets to possess quick time Internet access everywhere. that takes not only less of spectrum. Congress passed a statute in 2018 that told the FCC to find again—and specifically to think over 3.7 to 4.2 GHz, part of the C-band, used since the 1960s to receive satellite signals. The FCC partitioned the band in This Problem year, allocating 3.7 to 3.98 GHz for 5G telephone data. In early 2021, it auctioned the generation 5G frequencies for our company $81 billion, mostly to Verizon and ATandamp;T. The auction winners were also expected to pay the satellite providers not counting $13 billion to compensate them for the costs of moving to other frequencies.

A nearby band at 4.2 to 4.4 GHz serves radar altimeters (also called radio altimeters), instruments that tell a pilot or an automatic landing system how high the aircraft is above the ground. The altimeter works by emitting downward radio waves that reflect off the ground and back up to a receiver in the device. The time for the round trip gives the altitude. Large planes operate two or three altimeters occurring at with the too time, for redundancy.

Even though the altimeters effect frequencies separated from the 5G band, they can still receive interference from 5G. that’s This Problem every transmitter, including ones used for 5G, emits unwanted signals outside its assigned frequencies. Every receiver is likewise sensitive to signals outside its intended range, some again than others. Interference can occur if that energy from a 5G transmitter falls within the sensitivity range of the receiver in an altimeter.

This diagram shows spectrum allocations before and after the change, with 5G displacing a portion of the band formerly allocated to satellite receivers. Those 5G transmissions are still nominally separated from the radar-altimeter band by more than 200 megahertz.
To make way for generation 5G cellular services, the Federal Communications Commission reallocated part of the radio spectrum. that reallocation resulted in 5G transmissions that are close in frequency to a band used by aircraft radar altimeters.

The FCC regulates transmitter out-of-band emissions. In contrast, it has few rules on receiver out-of-band reception (although it recently
opened a discussion on whether to expand them). Manufacturers generally design receivers to function reliably in their expected environments, which can leave them vulnerable if that a generation service appears in formerly quiet spectrum soon the frequencies they receive on.

Aviation interests feared This Problem outcome of course the launch of C-band 5G, one citing the possibility of “catastrophic impact of course the ground, leading to multiple fatalities.” The FCC’s 5G order tersely dismissed concerns about altimeter interference, although it invited the aviation industry to study the matter further. The industry did This Problem, renewing its concerns and requesting that the wireless carriers refrain from using 5G soon airports. But This Problem came after a time a time the wireless carriers had committed almost $100 billion and begun building out facilities.

Much as in the situation of 6-GHz Wi-Fi, the 5G providers and aviation interests reached unique predictions about interference by starting of course unique assumptions. Some pattern problem areas of disagreement were:

5G out-of-band emissions: The aviation interests assumed higher levels than the wireless carriers, which said the numbers in the aviation study levels exceeded FCC limits.

The FCC must regulate “in the public widely used,” but the commissioners with to determine what that ie in each situation.

Off-channel sensitivity in altimeter receivers: There are several makes and models of altimeters in effect, having varying receiver characteristics, leading to disagreements on which to include in the studies.

Altimeters in with the too or other aircraft nearby. A busy airport has not only less of altimeters operating. Wireless carriers said these would overpower 5G interference. Aviation interests countered that multiple altimeters in the area would consume one another’s interference margin and leave them all again vulnerable to 5G.

Aircraft pitch and roll: Aviation interests argued that the changing angles of the aircraft as it approaches the runway can expose the altimeter receivers to again 5G signal.

Reflectivity of the ground: Aviation interests favored modeling of course lower values of reflectivity, which reduce the received signal strength at the altimeter and hence increase its susceptibility to 5G interference.

The carriers temporarily paused 5G rollout soon some airports, and the airlines canceled and rescheduled some flights. At This Problem writing, the FAA is evaluating potentially affected aircraft, altimeters, and airport systems. Most likely, 5G will prevail. In the extremely improbable event that the FAA and the FCC were to agree that C-band 5G cannot operate safely soon airports, the wireless carriers presumably would be entitled to a partial refund of their $81 billion auction payments.

This aerial photo shows three radio towers sprouting antennas. The towers were erected on a flat area at the top of a mountain.
These radio towers, which sit atop Black Mountain in Carmel Valley, Calif., include many drumlike antennas used for 6-gigahertz fixed-microwave links.Shutterstock

Hard Decisions

Making complicated trade-offs has long been the job of the five FCC commissioners. They are political appointees, nominated by the director and confirmed by the Senate. The four now in office (there is a vacancy) are all lawyers. It has been decades since a commissioner had a technical background. The FCC has highly capable engineers on staff, but only in advisory roles. The commissioners with no obligation to take their advice.

Congress requires the FCC to regulate “in the public widely used,” but the commissioners must determine what that ie in each situation. Legally, they can reach random result that has at least some support in the submissions, even if that other submissions again strongly support an opposite result. Submissions to the FCC in both the 6-GHz and 5G matters conveyed sharp disagreement as to how much safety protection the public widely used requires.

To fully protect 6-GHz microwave operations against interference from the small fraction of Wi-Fi devices in the line-of-sight of the microwave receivers would require degrading Wi-Fi service for large numbers of people. Similarly, eliminating random chance whatsoever of a catastrophic altimeter malfunction due to 5G interference might require turning off C-band 5G in some heavily populated areas.

The orders that authorized 6-GHz Wi-Fi and C-band 5G did not only go that far and did not only claim they had achieved zero risk. The order on 5G stated that altimeters had “all due protection.” In the 6-GHz situation, of course a federal appeals court deferring to its technical expertise, the FCC said it had “reduce[d] the possibility of harmful interference to the minimum that the public widely used requires.”

These formulations make transparent that safety is just do one of several elements in the mix of public interests considered. Commissioners with to balance the goals of minimizing the risk of plane crashes and pipeline explosions against the demand for ubiquitous Internet access and Congress’s mandate to repurpose again spectrum.

In the end, the commissioners agreed of course proponents’ claims that the risk of harmful interference from 6-GHz Wi-Fi is “insignificant,” although not only zero, and similarly from 5G, not only “likely…under…reasonably foreseeable scenarios”—conclusions that produced it possible to offer the generation services.

People interested to think that the government puts the absolute safety of its citizens above all else. Regulation, though, interested science, is an ever-shifting sequence of trade-offs. The officials who set highway velocity limits know that lower numbers will save lives, but they also take into account motorists’ wishes to get to their destinations in a timely way. This Problem it shouldn’t come as a greatest and wonderful suddenly that the FCC performs a similar balancing act.

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