Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). Credit: Courtesy of Rep. Johnson

This article was corrected March 14. Europe’s proposed threshold for radio frequency interference is nearly 4000 times more stringent than the FCC’s. 

SAN FRANCISCO – Leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and three House Appropriations subcommittees are calling on the FCC to delay the auction of 5G radio frequency spectrum scheduled for March 14 due to concern about interference with space-based weather sensors.

“Given the frequency spectrum being considered, and at the FCC’s suggested noise limits, there is the potential for signal interference with Earth observation sensors for weather and climate forecasting which operate at adjacent spectrum frequencies,” Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), House Science Committee chair, and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), said in a March 13 letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “We are therefore asking you to delay the auction of 5G spectrum until [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], NASA and the DoD have been adequately consulted and their concerns have been addressed.”

The FCC is preparing to auction 2,909 licenses in the 24.25 to 25.25 GHz bands of the electromagnetic spectrum on March 14. Meteorologists are concerned the proliferation of 5G signals in those bands will interfere with dozens of passive microwave sensors on satellites that gather data on atmospheric water vapor in the 23.6 to 24 GHz band.

“As appropriators, we are highly concerned about the potential impact on the federal investment of billions of dollars in our satellite fleet, which is designed to support our defense apparatus and provide lifesaving weather data,” chairs of the House Appropriations financial services, defense and commerce subcommittees said in a March 13 letter to Pai. “We believe that there is significant risk that aggregate 5G signals under the current FCC rules for this band will mask natural radiation that provides important inputs for weather forecasting that cannot be obtained by other methods.”

Based on those concerns the appropriators asked the FCC to: postpone the auction until it provides the House Appropriations Committee with its analysis of potential interference, including engineering data; provide the committee with all FCC correspondence on the topic with NOAA, NASA, DoD, Commerce Department and White House organizations; and work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration “to update current emissions, power or other protective limits to ensure that they fully protect adjacent services, are supported by federal agencies, and will align with the international community.” The letter was signed by Appropriations Committee members Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), financial services subcommittee chair, Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), defense subcommittee chair, and José Serrano (D-N.Y.), commerce, justice and science subcommittee chair.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also expressed concern about the FCC’s 5G plan in a March 8 letter to Pai and invited him to a meeting to discuss the issue further. Pai soundly rejected that invitation in a March 11 letter that emphasized the Trump Administration’s commitment to rolling out 5G as quickly as possible.

Both the House Appropriators and House Science subcommittee leaders emphasized their support for 5G. “We are strong supporters of advancing America’s telecommunications infrastructure,” Johnson and Lucas wrote. “However, advancement in telecommunications should not come at the expense of the safety and security of the American people.”

Quigley, Visclosky and Serrano, said, support for 5G technology “must be weighted against the cost to other priorities, including national security and the safety of Americans’ lives and property.”

At the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in January, researchers and weather forecasters agreed 5G would offer many societal benefits and suggested it could be rolled in a way that would not interfere with weather sensors. The question is how much the 5G signals should be allowed to spill over into adjacent bands.

The FCC is proposing a noise threshold of -20 decibel watts.

“There is great concern that the FCC’s noise threshold will allow interference with weather and climate assets,” Johnson and Lucas said. A NOAA-NASA study recommended a noise threshold of -50 decibel watts, they added.

European regulators are proposing a noise threshold of -56 decibel watts, which is nearly 4000 times more stringent than the FCC’s proposed threshold.

“We are concerned that the FCC appears to be dismissing the views and concerns of NASA, NOAA, the DoD, the National Academy of Sciences, and the international community in moving forward with the March 14 auction,” Johnson and Lucas said.

The House Appropriators also called on the FCC to provide “robust oversight and enforcement of any emissions that cause interference to critical weather data streams” after it conducts auctions and licensees begin operations.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...