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The C-band Debacle

January 31, 2022 | As you have no doubt read, the FAA and the airlines are now worried about the C-Band spectrum and the potential impact on the GPS altimeters on their planes. This started becoming an issue last November, as AT&T and Verizon were deploying C-Band and were close to launch of the commercial service.

After a delay in launching service, the temporary fix has been for AT&T and Verizon NOT to turn on C-Band around major airports, thereby avoiding potential problems as planes are landing and taking off. Obviously, it is important for a plane to know how high it is off the ground as it is coming into land!

This situation has pitted the FAA and FCC against each other, backed by the MNOs and the airlines, respectively. But why has this come up now? Why just before the service was about to be launched? After all, the C-Band spectrum auctions happened a while ago and we’ve all known the carriers have been building the networks.

In fact, potential issues with C-Band interference and GPS have been known for about four years – since the original FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking back in July 2018. This issue was well known because the spectrum had been in use by satellite providers and has always been close to the band used by GPS. So, not only was Congress discussing this issue but the FCC intentionally left a 220 MHz guard band between the cellular C-Band and the GPS spectrum.

So, again, why did it all come to a head immediately before the cellular service was launched? Why the mad panic at the end? A cynical and/or jaded onlooker (like me) would say that someone wanted paying off. And that ’somebody’ is, as usual, the airlines. What changed for the airlines between 2018 when C-Band was proposed and January 2022 when the cellular service was turned on? Errrrr……Covid?

Could it be that the airlines, seeing that the MNOs paid more than $80 billion for the spectrum and that their own finances had been devastated by the pandemic, decided that a few billion should come their way? Could it be that the airlines saw the opportunity to get some quick cash assistance from those ‘rich’ cellular providers? As I said, some of us are jaded and cynical…

In my view, the current ‘fix’ is no fix at all. Simply not turning on C-Band around busy airports defeats the whole purpose of this new spectrum. After all, C-Band is for 5G, touted by the MNOs as high capacity, high performance, etc. And where do we need more cellular capacity? Somewhere where people sit for a couple of hours waiting for their flight, downloading movies and/or streaming content? Where were in-building wireless networks and Wi-Fi were first deployed for public use? Airports! So now probably the best use for C-Band has been negated. Nuts.

If the issue is not resolved so that AT&T and Verizon can use their spectrum in airports, if I were their lawyers I would be going back to the FCC and asking for a partial refund on those licenses. After all, paying a few billion for spectrum that you are prohibited from using means that asset has diminished in value. One discussion has been to reduce the power allowed for C-Band. This has the same impact – a less valuable license.

The current situation is good for no one. This debacle can be laid at the feet of the FCC and the FAA, both part of the same government, past and present. The airlines are taking advantage of this situation. In the end, someone will get a pay off – the question is how much and who pays.

But think about this: for the next auction in the mid-band, would you trust that similar issues will not arise? Would you trust the FCC to have sorted all potential problems? Or will someone cut your service at two minutes to midnight? Would this not devalue future spectrum auctions? Nice cellular service you have there. Shame if something happened to it.

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