February 03, 2022

Chairs DeFazio, Larsen Statements from Subcommittee Hearing on 5G Deployment and its Effects on Aviation Safety

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) during today’s hearing titled, “Finding the Right Frequency: 5G Deployment & Aviation Safety.”

Videos of DeFazio and Larsen’s opening statements are here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chair Larsen, for calling this important hearing today focused on the recent deployment of 5G technologies and its impact on the aviation industry and National Airspace System. I would like to thank FAA Administrator Dickson as well as the many aviation and telecom stakeholders for appearing before us today. I would also like to note that while FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel had a conflict and could not join us today, the committee very much looks forward to hearing from her in the future on this issue.

If the events of the last two months have taught us anything, it’s that the current interagency process for auctioning off spectrum is completely broken. My colleagues and I watched in complete dismay as the deployment of 5G originally proceeded without any of the safety mitigations the FAA, aviation industry, and I have long called for.  This resulted in a disorienting display of 5G fits and starts over the last several months, inevitably due to the FCC auctioning off 5G spectrum without any concrete plan in place to safely deploy these technologies without interfering with aviation.  

But it did not have to be this way!

Despite what recent coverage of 5G deployment might suggest, the concerns expressed by the FAA and aviation industry are nothing new.

In fact, numerous aviation stakeholders, including many we will hear from today, expressed concerns to the Trump-appointed, former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, prior to and after the FCC voted to open up the C-band for wireless use all the way back in 2018.  But they were ignored.

In September 2019, the FAA sent a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, expressing concerns that critical aviation systems could be impacted by harmful interference from C-band emissions and requesting the FCC delay further action until more studies could be done. However, they were ignored.

In November 2019, I sent a letter to former FCC Chairman Pai expressing my concern about the FCC’s continuing disregard for aviation safety and urging the agency to delay moving forward unless they include strong mitigations to prevent harmful interference with aircraft. I was ignored.

In December 2020, the FAA and DOT sent a letter to the NTIA stating the “FCC’s [current] path in this proceeding is insufficient to address our concerns” and urging them to delay the FCC’s upcoming auction.  However, the NTIA failed to enter the letter into the FCC’s docket for consideration, and again, they were ignored.

And this isn’t exclusive to aviation or the FAA. In 2019, the FCC proposed to give away more than half the bandwidth previously reserved for transportation safety and connected vehicles, despite my objections and those of many other transportation stakeholders.

The FCC’s history of subordinating transportation safety to corporate broadband interests has predictably resulted in the current mess we find ourselves in and must change if we hope to avoid a similar result in the future.

Now the telecom industry has argued that the safety mitigations the FAA and aviation industry are advocating for, and which the telecom industry has begrudgingly accepted only recently, are unnecessary because 5G deployment is occurring in as many as 40 other countries, with no confirmed reports of harmful interference with aircraft.

However, what they fail to mention is that most of these countries use either drastically lower 5G power levels than the U.S., operate 5G further away from the frequency used by aircraft radio altimeters, or have required significant safety mitigations, such as airport exclusion zones or 5G antennae placement requirements, to limit the potential for harmful interference to aircraft.

Additionally, no other country even comes close to having the level and complexity of civil aviation activity that exists in the U.S.

As I’ve stated before, to make this comparison without recognizing the critical differences that exist between the U.S. and every other country that has deployed 5G technology is disingenuous, misleading, and displays a glaring disregard for the potential safety measures needed to protect the flying public.

Now I want to be clear.  I do not oppose the deployment of 5G.

On the contrary, I know faster wireless speeds will help provide many great benefits for Americans, and have tremendous potential applications in the tech, healthcare, and national security fields.

But let’s not suggest the risks of delaying 5G deployment were ever equal to the risks deployment could pose to aviation safety.

A dropped call or the inability to access a slightly faster internet connection is not nearly the same as the risk of a potential aviation accident. In fact, it’s not even close.

Radio altimeters serve as a pilot’s primary altitude measurement during flight and are critical to enabling safe arrivals, particularly during inclement weather or other instances of low visibility. The risk of flying an aircraft with a compromised radio altimeter can be disastrous. 

For instance, in 2009 a Turkish Airlines flight experienced faulty radio altimeter readings while on approach, contributing to its fatal crash landing that resulted in nine deaths.

The consequences of getting this right are enormous. We cannot afford to dismiss the aviation industry’s concerns regarding the importance of accurate radio altimeter readings.

We must do everything we can to prevent or limit the potential for 5G signals to interfere with these devices.

There are some who believe that the risk of 5G potentially interfering with aircraft radio altimeters is a “low risk” event that should be ignored.  But this committee has learned that the consequences of ignoring even “low-risk” events in aviation can be catastrophic.

The two crashes of Boeing 737 MAX airplanes in 2018 and 2019 may have been considered “low-risk” by some, but ultimately led to the tragic loss of 346 lives.

Furthermore, in the wake of the 737 MAX crashes, this committee and the American public, rightfully, questioned the FAA’s lax oversight of the 737 MAX certification process and its commitment to safety.

But now there are critics—mostly those who tend to have no background in aerospace engineering or aviation safety—condemning the FAA for doing the very thing this committee and the American public have been calling on for decades: to do everything in its power to protect the American public from any and all risks to aviation safety.

We must not now, or ever, condemn the FAA for prioritizing safety.

Despite my continued concerns for how this process has played out, I am strongly supportive of the recent agreement reached between Verizon, AT&T, and the Biden administration to ensure we have 5G exclusion zones near all airports affected by the recent 5G deployment.

This agreement and continued collaboration between the telecom industry, aviation stakeholders, and the FAA will help ensure we can maintain aviation safety while also limiting the disruption to the aviation industry and American travelers.

Important questions remain: What are the precise details of the recent deal announced? How long are the current safety mitigations expected to last? What is the FAA doing to ensure it is communicating with all aviation stakeholders in a swift and transparent manner, particularly with regard to new AMOCs or NOTAMs the agency plans to issue? And what are the FAA, telecom industry, and aviation stakeholders doing to ensure we are fully prepared for future broadband deployments?

I look forward to receiving answers to these important questions today. I yield back.

Chair Larsen:

Good morning and welcome to today’s Aviation Subcommittee hearing titled “Finding the Right Frequency: 5G Deployment and Aviation Safety.”

On January 24th, 25th and 26th, Alaska Airlines cancelled over 50 flights at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, my hometown.

Was it the thicker than usual 24-hour fog? No, planes fly in worse.

Was it the Embraer 175 radio altimeter? Also no.

Or the runway orientation? Was it pointing the wrong way? That’s a silly assumption to make.

Was it just the presence of a radio tower with a soon-to-be activated 5G transmitter? No, not just that.

Unfortunately, the problem was all of those things coming together in a perfect storm of technology.

This true story about 5G and aviation safety shows that the problem we are addressing today has more layers than a Dagwood sandwich.

What do we do when we are faced with a complex problem like this?

We break it into its parts and focus on basic principles. Our basic principle on this subcommittee is aviation safety.

So how do we ensure that 5G and aviation safety can coexist, in the words of several of our witnesses.

What I hope emerges from this hearing is that the Subcommittee has a firm grasp of what the telecommunication and aviation industries, the FAA, the FCC, the NTIA and others can do to anticipate future 5G rollout conflicts, avoid them, and what impact future FCC auctions may have on aviation operations, and establish a process, formal or informal, to proactively address these conflicts.

In preparation for today’s hearing, here is what I have concluded:

  • The aviation industry has expressed concerns about 5G interference as far back as 2015 at the World Radio Conference.
  • The NTIA, the federal agency responsible for coordinating spectrum policy, failed to communicate the FAA concerns through the formalized FCC process.
  • Telecom engineers and aerospace engineers have the name “engineers” in common, but beyond that, they speak different engineering languages when they speak to each other and when they speak to each other at all. But I understand that is changing as well, and that is a positive outcome.
  • The industries, aviation and telecom, have misaligned cultures on this issue, with telecom being about clearer, faster communications as its selling point, and aviation has aviation safety as its selling point. It’s what gives the public confidence in flying.
  • This is not a federal government only problem. It is also an industry problem

So what can we do to help aviation safety ad 5G coexist?

  • It is imperative that there will be a continued rollout of the C-band from 3.7 to 3.8 MHz on the spectrum and eventually 3.8 to 3.98, which will bring it closer to the 4.2 mHz band where the aviation band starts. There’s a potential for future auctions as well. And then there’s 6G coming down, and it means different things to different people, and we don’t know what it means for aviation safety. So we need to begin to understand that.
  • I think we need to establish an informal or formalized communication between the FAA and the FCC moving forward as well, so hopefully we don’t have to have another hearing like this.
  • I would like to think that perhaps in foreign policy what they call a Track II dialogue can be convened, which is an informal, non-governmental discussion, in this case on 5G, on radio altimeters, on next steps that can be used to inform the more formal mechanisms—sort of sort these things out informally and the inform the formal mechanisms.

I certainly look forward to other ideas that we are going to hear from our witnesses today.

As we move forward, maybe we can get this Dagwood sandwich down to bite-sized chunks.

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