FCC blames Commerce Department for 5G weather scare, spectrum delays

Although the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has the final say on allocating wireless spectrum for public and private sector purposes, other federal agencies have input — and may be unreasonably obstructing 5G deployments, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Testifying at a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing (via MobileWorldLive), Pai and other commissioners called out the Department of Commerce for “blocking our efforts at every single turn,” even blaming it for recent and allegedly inaccurate suggestions that 5G will imperil weather forecasting.

The key issue is that allocating large swaths of 5G spectrum in some cases requires prior users — often ones with comparatively modest spectrum needs — to share space with new ones, the equivalent of turning a three-house neighborhood into a major subdivision where yards get smaller and houses are closer together. In the midst of 24GHz auctions, the Commerce-controlled National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested that new 5G users will come too close to their weather forecasting spectrum, creating interference that could impact virtually everything dependent on weather predictions.

Pai challenged the NOAA’s position, suggesting that the FCC had left a 250MHz buffer between new 5G users and weather sensors in the 24GHz range, and that 5G users would be using precise, “rifle shot” bandwidth rather than a “shotgun blast” approach. He also noted that the Department of Commerce’s suggestion of a larger buffer would kill 5G use of the 24GHz band in the United States, as well as impacting international use of the same spectrum.

Other commissioners backed Pai’s position. Michael O’Rielly claimed that the Commerce Department has raised similar objections “to every other band” the FCC is allocating for 5G, and wants “to come back and retest and re-challenge decisions we are making,” a “very problematic” situation. Jessica Rosenworcel described the situation as “embarrassing,” saying that the lack of a unified U.S. position could undermine international negotiations at the October ITU World Radiocommunication Conference.

Rosenworcel’s comments followed a similar warning one month ago, as top Trump administration telecom official David Redl abruptly resigned as assistant secretary for communications and information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Pai said the dispute with the Commerce Department has worsened since Redl’s resignation, and requested further congressional assistance in hastening 5G deployments to regain momentum.

The Senate has previously backed and pushed Pai to speed 5G spectrum deployment, describing the deployments as necessary to “winning the race to 5G.” While the Commerce Department may be slowing the FCC down, Trump administration officials — including the president — have said they support an accelerated 5G rollout, notably asking the Commerce Department to set the long-term strategy for the initiative.

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