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House panel to examine what went wrong with the 5G rollout


Ahead of the rollout of 5G wireless service, it sounded like mass chaos was about to break out. The FAA warned that 5G signals could interfere with critical safety systems, and airlines warned of catastrophic flight delays and cancellations. When it came down to it, there weren't actually many disruptions. But as NPR's David Schaper reports, a congressional hearing today will investigate what happened.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: On a call with analysts and reporters last week, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker gave this blunt assessment of how a clash between the FAA and telecom companies over the rollout of 5G nearly grounded thousands of commercial airline flights.


SCHAPER: It wasn't our finest hour, I think, as a country.

SCHAPER: Parker says at least now, all of the parties are talking to one another to solve the problem. But he and others say this 5G debacle could have been avoided. Robert W. Mann is a former airline executive and now an industry consultant.

ROBERT W MANN: It's an odd thing. I don't know how we got here. This potential for interference was well-known.

SCHAPER: For years, the aviation industry has been raising concerns about cellphone companies using a segment of the radio spectrum to transmit powerful 5G wireless signals to our smartphones and other devices because it is so close to the frequencies used by radio altimeters, which measure how high aircraft are above the ground. But Mann says Verizon and AT&T paid close to $70 billion for this C-band spectrum and are eager to cash in.

MANN: We're kind of at the position of, you know, wretched excess capitalism versus aviation safety. The telecom companies and the airlines are essentially caught up in a squabble between two federal agencies, the FCC, which oversees the airwaves, and the FAA, safety regulator of the airways.

DIANA FURCHTGOTT-ROTH: It was basically a game of brinksmanship.

SCHAPER: Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a former top transportation department official in the Trump administration who oversaw research into 5G and other new technologies, says the safety concerns were well-documented.

FURCHTGOTT-ROTH: So the FCC was very much aware of them, but the FCC has a pattern of not listening to DOT safety concerns.

SCHAPER: So in December of 2020, Furchtgott-Roth says her office and the FAA sent a formal letter objecting to the C-band spectrum auction to another federal agency called the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA.

FURCHTGOTT-ROTH: NTIA did not choose to pass it on.

SCHAPER: Furchtgott-Roth suggests her fellow Trump administration appointees at the FCC and Commerce Department were more interested in pleasing the telecom industry and bringing in tens of billions of dollars to the federal Treasury with the 5G auction.

FURCHTGOTT-ROTH: You need to follow the money.

SCHAPER: Former FCC and NTIA officials dispute that and say their experts determined the FAA safety concerns were unfounded. Diane Rinaldo headed the NTIA through 2019 and is now with a wireless technology industry group.

DIANE RINALDO: The FCC did testing to ensure that there was no interference, specifically with altimeters. So the i's were dotted, the t's were crossed before any last rollout of 5G occurred.

SCHAPER: Rinaldo faults the FAA for filing its objections to the 5G rollout late and for not doing its own testing of altimeters to determine which ones may be susceptible to 5G interference until recently.

RINALDO: What is being done over the past couple of weeks should have been done a year ago.

SCHAPER: Congressman Peter DeFazio, who will chair today's hearing, sharply criticizes the FCC for overriding the FAA's safety concerns. And he calls the interagency process for auctioning off spectrum completely broken.

David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.