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New Report Urges Reform of Spectrum-Allocation Process Following C-Band Spat Over 5G and Aviation Equipment

WASHINGTON—An interagency dispute that stalled a long-planned rollout of 5G services in the prime “C band” of wireless spectrum and threatened flight cancellations underscores why policymakers must enact reforms to improve regulators’ understanding of device performance, increase data gathering and sharing, and clarify the spectrum allocation process, according to a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the leading think tank for science and technology policy, and the Eno Center for Transportation (Eno).

“The existing U.S. spectrum allocation process contains vulnerabilities and weaknesses that will worsen as wireless bandwidth becomes more crowded and valuable,” said Joe Kane, director of broadband and spectrum policy at ITIF, who co-authored the report.

The report used the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) allocation of C-Band airwaves to 5G as a case study to review the process for safely and responsibly allocating spectrum, identify gaps in the process, and propose policy solutions that would help identify and resolve issues before they become public safety or industry-wide problems in future allocations.

As the case study shows, the aviation industry disagreed with the FCC’s allocation of C-Band because of safety concerns. This disagreement came to a head in January 2022, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned that, without changes to the rollout, planes would be grounded around the country. To avoid this outcome, wireless tech companies voluntarily agreed to postpone their deployment and worked with the aviation stakeholders on a modified rollout.

“While the immediate crisis was averted, it exposed critical and interrelated gaps and failures in the process and policies used for efficiently allocating spectrum,” said Robert Puentes, president and CEO of Eno, who co-authored the report.

To address these shortcomings, ITIF and Eno created a joint advisory group consisting of aviation and wireless spectrum experts, as well as those deeply familiar with federal spectrum allocation procedures. This group informed the research, evaluation, and development of specific, actionable recommendations to improve the process and avoid conflicts in the future. The report presents four recommendations:

  • Agencies and standards-setting organizations should look to improve spectrum-using devices’ resiliency to interference.
  • The federal government should invest in personnel that can properly operate and lead complex spectrum allocation processes.
  • Final decisions on spectrum allocation need to be established based on clear testing, data, and definitions.
  • The federal government should clarify and enforce jurisdictions and areas of expertise within the spectrum allocation process.

“The recent spectrum allocation conflict between aviation and telecommunications was not just a significant problem for both industries but for the nation itself—and it could have been prevented,” said Eno policy analyst Garett Shrode, who co-authored the report.”

“The federal government should not wait until the next conflict to act,” said ITIF research assistant Jessica Dine. “Targeted reforms to improve the quality of personal relationships and expertise of players in the process, and to enhance the technological capabilities of devices, will go a long way toward averting problems in the future.”

Read the report.


The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy. Recognized by its peers in the think tank community as the global center of excellence for science and technology policy, ITIF’s mission is to formulate and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress.

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