FAA must step up now on 5G
The challenges facing our nation as we struggle to emerge from the pandemic are enormous. The disruption of our lives is without precedent in the modern era. Cybersecurity challenges continue to grow, and the race with China for technological advantage has never been more acute. Just a few years ago, I joined a chorus of leaders in the United States who sounded the alarm bells regarding Huawei, a Chinese-owned company trying to dominate 5G deployment in the UK, Europe, and throughout the world. The national security concerns around allowing China into our networks were — and are — enormous. The economic consequences of Chinese dominance in 5G are equally chilling. And now, on the verge of full 5G deployment in the United States, our own Federal Aviation Administration has expressed 11th hour safety concerns that should have been addressed years ago.
The next generation of telecommunications technology goes well beyond faster app or movie downloads. 5G wireless marks a revolutionary step in linking billions of devices and platforms in real time, enabling autonomous vehicles, remote surgery, and more. The commercial opportunities are likely to exceed $1 trillion. The 5G world also has profound implications for U.S. intelligence and national security, so it is crucial for U.S. companies to remain at the vanguard of developing 5G equipment, devices and infrastructure.
The U.S. is well positioned to remain competitive in this race, but China is a few steps ahead and is determined to be the arbiter of 5G telecommunication. In the Made in China 2025 blueprint, China spells out unequivocally its intention to dominate in what it deems strategic industries, which happen to be just about every current and emerging technology, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and robotics, and of course 5G. China wants to muscle its way to the commanding heights in 5G by dictating everything from technical standards for devices and equipment to devising security technology — or how to evade it. Chinese officials have boasted they could achieve 5G coverage nationally by the end of 2025.
Having served in the post-911 White House, I can appreciate the challenges faced by our federal government when confronted with extreme challenges. Interagency views of how to respond were often parochial. We determined that our traditional siloed approach to defending the homeland was not acceptable. From that experience came the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the largest reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Pentagon’s joint command system in the 1940s.
Today, we have one agency of the government, the FAA, that needs to commit every available resource to rectify its oversight, work with the Federal Communications Commission, the airlines and the private sector, which has committed $80 billion to safely deploy 5G technology. This is imperative to our economic and national security. No one is proposing compromising public safety, but I believe answers are there and the FAA, working with the FCC, must address them now. Progress already is being made. I’m pleased to see that the FAA just this week issued approvals for additional altimeters that allow about 90 percent of the U.S. commercial aviation fleet to perform low-visibility landings at airports where 5G wireless is deployed. This progress must continue as we can ill afford to place politics over passenger safety.
The FCC has conducted years of rigorous technical analysis and is confident that we can fly planes safely and develop 5G infrastructure simultaneously. In fact, it is already happening in 40 countries including the United States, Europe, and Australia. FAA officials are aware of this because they have been coordinating the FCC and other agencies for years on this issue. Recently, wireless carriers announced plans to further expand their mitigation efforts around U.S. airports to adopt the same technical standards and power levels that are being used in France, where this same spectrum is already in use — without incident or any interference issues — by U.S. aircraft each day.
For 5G to succeed, it cannot be implemented in a piece-meal fashion subject to uncertainty. Spectrum availability, network infrastructure, and designing devices to operate with 5G technology is a multi-billion endeavor where planning and coordination must be in sync. Wireless carriers invested billions to gain timely access to the C-Band. They did so with the understanding that government agencies were also in synch.
The U.S. is up against fierce competition on an uneven playing field when it comes to 5G. Given the implications for national security and technological leadership, team government needs to up its game at this critical juncture.
Tom Ridge served as the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and was the first U.S. secretary of Homeland Security. Today he is chairman of Ridge Global and serves as an adviser to the wireless industry.
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