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To remain secure, we must win the race to 5G

Fifth-generation, or 5G, communications technology. (Graphic illustration by Nelson James/Air Force)
November 12, 2021

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If the United States is to remain the world’s greatest, most resilient nation, we must continue to stress innovation. And today, innovation depends on 5G wireless.

Whether in science, technology or the future of our national security, the U.S. has consistently led the world in creating unique, innovative platforms and new forms of infrastructure. Leading the world in 5G wireless is a national security imperative that will enable America to maintain our leadership in innovation and network resiliency – if policymakers encourage its development and avoid slowing or burdening 5G infrastructure deployments with unwarranted constraints.

There’s little question that China is our most formidable and ambitious adversary. China has made its bold intentions clear. It is intent on taking over our long-held status as the world’s leading economic and military super-power. The Chinese impose significantly fewer restrictions and regulations on wireless development, allowing them to build new and advanced networks and utilize the invisible airwaves, or wireless spectrum, at a faster rate. That unfortunate fact takes on even greater significance now, in the wake of recent actions by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that threatens to hinder U.S. 5G progress.

Last week, the FAA issued an advisory warning that the continued deployment of 5G, specifically valuable C-Band spectrum, could interfere with key airline safety devices. Airline safety is absolutely critical, but this claim simply does not hold water.

The FAA’s concerns are based on faulty, self-selected data. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency that regulates spectrum use and studies interference concerns, has examined C-Band spectrum influence on aviation operations as far back as 2017 and used the data it collected to establish mutually beneficial rules that are fully sufficient to both build 5G networks and protect aeronautical services.

Furthermore, in several other countries throughout Europe and Asia, C-Band has been deployed without showing any signs of affecting the aviation industry, and these deployments are even closer to the spectrum used by the aviation industry than the FCC’s 220-megahertz guard band mandate—without any discernable impact.

Left unchecked, the FAA’s position on 5G could pose a direct threat to U.S. national security. Among other high-tech advantages, our ability to combat cyber threats, gather vital intelligence, and deploy the latest in computer-guided weaponry will hinge on the full deployment of state-of-the-art 5G networks. Allowing China to deploy robust 5G infrastructure before we do in the U.S. could leave our nation vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks on everything from combat operations to the electric grid, communications and transportation networks, and other essential public services.

The FAA’s actions are yet another example of how government red tape can stymie American progress and growth. Blocking our ability to deploy 5G will cause us to miss out on many first mover learnings and advantages – ceding this valuable technology to China and other geopolitical foes. It’s time for the FAA and the FCC to work together to resolve their concerns. Allowing the FAA’s Special Airworthiness warning to lead to further delays in network buildouts will cause the U.S. to continue falling behind in the race to 5G.

The FAA has refused to provide the data behind its claims and the information necessary to fully examine the study highlighting 5G interference, leading many to think that this is as much an attempt to undermine the FCC’s authority as a legitimate concern for air safety. The FAA must present the data and defend their intervention or stand down. Last-minute warnings and unfounded claims of interference dangers risk putting American 5G future on hold and giving China the green light to surge ahead of us.

Major General Bob Dees, U.S. Army, Retired, has a breadth of national security expertise, including development of high technology weapons and communications systems. He also served as a consultant to the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection.