Cantwell Warns 5G Auction Could Damage U.S. Weather Forecasting, Data Collection

May 14, 2019

In a letter yesterday, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Ron Wyden (D-OR), warned that an ongoing sale of wireless airwaves could damage the effectiveness of U.S. weather satellites and harm forecasts and predictions relied on to protect safety, property and national security. 

The two senators urged the Trump administration not to allow wireless companies to operate fifth generation (5G) communications on 24 GHz spectrum until these concerns are addressed. They also released an internal U.S. Navy memo that concluded that reducing the accuracy of weather forecasts could threaten the safety of aircraft and naval vessels, and reduce military awareness of battlefield conditions. 

“Millions of Americans live in areas under increasing threat from hurricanes, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events. The U.S. military and our aviation, maritime, and numerous other industries rely on accurate forecasting information every day to ensure safety and make crucial decisions,” Senator Cantwell said. “We can’t afford to undermine our data and set the quality of weather forecasting back to the 1970s. Instead of overruling or ignoring the experts, the FCC and the administration should look at the science, listen to experts, and take the time needed to get this right.” 

In the letter addressed to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, the senators detailed concerns from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and members of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) about damage to the quality of U.S. weather forecasting and a reduction in the reliability of extreme weather predictions relied on by emergency managers and responders, American industries and the U.S. military. They also highlighted concerns voiced by the U.S. Navy that interference with weather satellites could result in increased risks to both aircraft and naval vessels. 

The senators requested the FCC provide them with the following information no later than June 11, 2019: 

1.     Provide any computer models, assumptions, and analysis that support the FCC’s rule on emission limits from future commercial broadband transmissions in the 24 GHz band and show that it will not impact applications in adjacent frequency bands, particularly satellite measurements of water vapor in the 23.8 GHz band that is so important to weather forecasting.

2.     Explain what the FCC intends to do if the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) refuses to accept the current FCC advocated level on emissions limits in the 24 GHz band. 

3.     Explain the reconciliation process used to resolve the dispute between NASA/NOAA and the FCC in favor of the FCC’s position.  Please include the timeline of the events in that process and all relevant documents, including emails or other digital communications.

4.     Explain and provide supporting documentation related to the FCC’s public interest analysis, including any cost-benefit analysis, on the FCC’s emissions limit. In particular, explain how the FCC addressed the costs to taxpayers from the loss of billions of dollars of investment in weather-sensing satellites, the costs to public safety and national security, and to the nation’s commercial activities that rely on this critical weather data.

In a hearing on Tuesday, Cantwell also raised her concerns with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and highlighted the importance of accurate, timely weather forecasts. 

“People in the Pacific Northwest know what storms are all about,” Cantwell said. “We know what hot, dry seasons are doing to us as it relates to fire. And so we need the weather forecasting, and we need it in advance. We don’t need it three days out, two days out. We need to know where and how to get the resources to the location.” 

Witnesses at the hearing also agreed that the spectrum auction poses risks for U.S. weather forecasting. 

“There is a risk that if we do not have access to that spectrum that our weather forecasting could be degraded… So if instead of getting all of the data that we are currently getting, if it degrades to a certain percentage, the less data that we are able to glean from that part of the spectrum, the more degradated our weather forecast gets,” Bridenstine said. 

“We would echo entirely the comments made by the administrator here, concerns about a deep reduction in the quality of our Earth observations for weather prediction and things like that,” said Kevin O’Connell, the Director of the Office of Space Commerce at the U.S. Department of Commerce.