05-27 smartphone network

[Image above] Credit: Pixabay

When demand for air travel started showing slow signs of recovery in 2021, the pandemic’s effect on the industry quickly became apparent as thousands of flights were delayed or cancelled due largely to staffing shortages, particularly pilots.

However, if you were flying this past January, there was a different reason for the cancellation of some flights—miscommunication surrounding rollout of new 5G wireless service by telecommunication companies.

5G refers to the fifth-generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks. These networks can operate in a higher frequency range than previous broadband standards, which telecommunication companies emphasize will allow for higher data rates, low latency (no delays between transmit and receive signals), and increased connectivity.

However, though companies often claim these higher frequency ranges are “empty” for exploitation by 5G networks, the reality is that other industries and sectors already use these frequency ranges.

For example, weather satellites collect important data on water vapor in the 20–30 GHz range. In 2019, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began auctioning frequencies in this range to mobile carriers preparing for 5G, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expressed strong concern about it degrading the scientific community’s ability to accurately track and forecast weather patterns.

Air travel is another industry that expressed concerns over new 5G networks interfering with their equipment, specifically radio altimeters, or devices that help determine a plane’s altitude. These concerns led airlines to cancel flights in January as the time for AT&T and Verizon’s 5G service rollout approached. In response, AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay switching on new telecom towers near key airports, and the Federal Aviation Administration is leading a push to retrofit and ultimately replace some airplane radio altimeters that could face interference from the new 5G service.

Of course, the 5G airline debacle in the U.S. contrasts sharply with the 5G rollout in Europe, which went off without a hitch. These significantly contrasting experiences are due to the fact that Europe required a much larger buffer between the spectrum used by radar altimeters and 5G, so there was no risk of interference.

Why is the U.S. struggling so much with spectrum allocation? This struggle stems largely from the relationship between two federal agencies—the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

FCC regulates nonfederal use of the radio spectrum (including television) and interstate telecommunications (via wire and later satellite and cable). In contrast, NTIA is responsible for governmentwide federal spectrum management.

Ceramic and glass materials for 5G wireless communication systems

5G is more than just faster videos and uploads—it holds significant potential to impact the ceramic and glass materials that are involved in 5G wireless communication systems, from antenna and fiber infrastructure to smartphone device design.

The August 2019 Bulletin looked at innovations that will be needed in ceramic and glass materials to realize the 5G network. Below are two examples of these expected developments.

MIMO antennas. Rather than a single antenna transmitting and receiving signal in all directions, 5G architectures will have enhanced directionality by using an array of antennas called multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO). Polymers and ceramic-filled polymers are advantageous materials for MIMO antennas because they are inexpensive and easily conformal, have low dielectric constants, and can integrate with established low-temperature processes. However, ceramic materials are especially useful because of reduced dielectric losses, temperature-stable dielectric constants, and improved thermal conductivity, as well as better mechanical stability in thin sections.

Fiber infrastructure. With more antennas and faster transmission speeds, legacy copper-based infrastructures will not be able to keep up with 5G bandwidth. Fiber infrastructure will be needed both in between the increased amount of cell towers and within buildings themselves.

Check out the August 2019 Bulletin for a more expansive list of expected developments.

The Communications Act of 1934, as amended, assigns joint jurisdiction for spectrum management in the U.S. to FCC and NTIA. These agencies are expected to coordinate spectrum allocations to balance public and private sector interests, but communication between these two agencies often falls short of the needed cooperation.

“Two years ago [in 2020], the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the Government Accountability Office to review federal spectrum management, complaining it had devolved into the use of ‘chaotic processes’ in which federal agencies appeared to be circumventing NTIA,” an FYI article explains. “The resulting GAO report, released in January, outlines steps NTIA specifically could take to reform its processes for assessing spectrum interference risks and communicating them to FCC. … A separate study that GAO released last year in response to a bipartisan request from the House Science Committee found that there is no clear guidance on how FCC and NTIA should resolve disputes.”

In addition, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between FCC and NTIA, which outlines how and how often the agencies will share data, communicate users’ needs, and raise potential spectrum interference issues before allocation decisions are made, has not been updated since 2003. In January 2022, Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) strongly suggested that the MOU be updated because it “does not appropriately account for the dramatic changes in technology in the past 20 years.”

In response to the numerous critiques, FCC and NTIA are actively working to improve their coordination. In February, the two agencies announced a new initiative called the Spectrum Coordination Initiative. In addition to vowing to update the MOU, the new initiative requires

  1. The FCC chair and NTIA head hold formal, regular meetings to conduct joint spectrum planning. The current MOU requires these officials to meet only twice each year.
  2. Collaboration of FCC and NTIA to help inform development of a national spectrum strategy.
  3. FCC’s participation as an observer in NTIA’s Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee. Similarly, NTIA will participate as an observer in the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council and the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council.

In 2020, the NTIA proposed the possibility of creating a portal called the Incumbent Informing Capability (IIC). This portal would allow any federal spectrum user to submit information about when and where they would employ certain frequencies.

“This scheduling information would inform a spectrum coordination system (SCS), in conjunction with advanced computer databases, allowing 5G commercial network providers to adjust operations in real time and avoid harmful interference,” the NTIA explained in a press release announcing the concept.

In October 2021, U.S. Representative Brett Guthrie (R-KY 2nd District) introduced the Simplifying Management, Reallocation, and Transfer of Spectrum (SMART) Act in the House, which recommends that NTIA receive a more than $100 million infusion to develop a framework to dynamically share spectrum between federal and nonfederal users.

In a virtual hearing held Tuesday, May 24, by the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, witnesses emphasized how this act would provide NTIA a timeline and funding authorization to realize the IIC. They also noted how emerging artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques could lend themselves to spectrum management.

Over in the Senate, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Improving Spectrum Coordination Act in April 2021, which aims to reform procedures for reallocating radiofrequency bands to new users. The bill would not only require FCC and NTIA to update their MOU (which, as mentioned above, they vowed to do when announcing the Spectrum Coordination Initiative), but it would require revisions quadrennially to address “changing technological, procedural, and policy circumstances.”

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee originally planned to consider this bill during an executive session on Wednesday, May 25, but it ultimately was not discussed during the session.