High-stakes dispute turns nasty, pits 5G technology against weather forecasting
Aug. 5, 2019
By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter
The National Academy of Sciences planned a two-day summer workshop to address a high-stakes question: Could the development of next generation 5G wireless undermine the accuracy of information gathered by weather satellites?
On July 16, less than a week before the scheduled start, the event was canceled because many of the “most knowledgeable about the topic” were reluctant to participate, according to a statement released by the National Academy of Sciences.
The science workshop was a casualty of a nasty dispute within the federal government that has pitted Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officials who say the 5G technology can be safely developed against NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials who say tighter restrictions are needed to prevent a serious threat to data collection by polar-orbiting satellites.
How this gets resolved could have serious implications for the accuracy of forecasting, which will be increasingly important in a warming world expected to have more extreme weather events. It will also have repercussions for a U.S. wireless industry eager to deploy a transformative technology that offers much faster data speed.
The rhetoric heated up this spring as the FCC announced plans to auction off a band of the electromagnetic spectrum near the frequency that polar-orbiting satellites use to monitor water vapor.
In the months since, federal officials have negotiated behind the scenes to try to find common ground over what strength of 5G transmission signals would be allowed on that portion of the spectrum.
But publicly, federal officials have continued to lob shots at one another.
In July Senate testimony, Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, citing an unreleased study by his agency, said that up to 70 percent of the water-vapor information from the polar-orbiting satellites could be lost as that part of the spectrum is developed by 5G companies. This information is crucial for building models that meteorologists use to make forecasts.
“Some of the data could be interfered with, it could be corrupted … it would affect our ability to predict weather, without question” said Bridenstine, who recommended the FCC require the 5G companies to transmit signals on that part of the spectrum at much lower levels.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai, in a June 11 letter to Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, slammed the NASA study as filled with errors and unrealistic assumptions that created a “parade of horribles” about 5G development that have “no basis in reality.”
“In short, the Commission’s decisions with respect to spectrum have been and will continue to be based on sound science and engineering rather than exaggerated and unverified last minute assertions,” he wrote.
Cantwell, a Democrat, is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FCC, NASA and NOAA. She has been on high alert about the potential for 5G development to harm the accuracy of multiday forecasting vital to tracking major storms and floods.
In the Northwest, these predictions are critical during fire season and inform fishermen and other mariners of turbulent weather.
In a letter last week to federal agency leaders, Cantwell urged them to resolve the dispute.
“When it comes to the lives, property, the economy and our national security, it is the responsibility of the entire federal government to get this right,” Cantwell wrote.
The Seattle Times reached out to the FCC and NOAA for an update on 5G negotiations, and spokespeople for the agencies declined to comment.
More 5G spectrum
The FCC spring auction was backed by the Trump administration, which wants to make the U.S. the global leader in 5G technology, which will make it easier to develop faster and more reliable wireless connections, and greatly increase the capability to gather, process and analyze information.
This is expected to have wide-ranging impacts on education, health care, automotive and other industries, and President Donald Trump wants the U.S. to have, by 2020, more 5G spectrum than any other country.
“The race to 5G is on, and America must win,” Trump said in April appearance with Pai in the White House.
To help make that happen, the FCC is “pushing more spectrum into the marketplace,” updating policies and “modernizing” outdated regulations according to a policy document published on the commission website.
NOAA and NASA officials have repeatedly said they also support 5G development but don’t want it to harm a satellite network that cost taxpayers $18 billion to develop, according to a June letter that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sent to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.