Pending FCC Action Threatens Aviation Safety-of-Flight Functions

The Air Transport Association of America (ATA), the nation’s leading airline trade association, continued its safety warnings concerning interference from Ultra-Wideband (UWB) devices. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to issue a ruling that could authorize the use of UWB devices that interfere with Global Positioning System (GPS) transmissions that provide for critical safety-of-flight functions, and other services that operate in restricted spectrum bands. This decision, which will have critical safety implications for the hundreds of millions of Americans who travel by air each year, could come as early as Thursday, Feb. 14, 2002, when the Commission plans to address the issue.
To the bewilderment of aviation safety experts, proponents of UWB have not been required to demonstrate its safety. To the contrary, airlines and other aviation system users whose restricted safety-of-life spectrum will be affected have had to prove that UWB is unsafe. In the safety-oriented environment of aviation, this is an unheard of requirement.

On behalf of the nation’s airlines, ATA President and CEO Carol Hallett emphasized, “Every other federal government agency is working diligently to enhance aviation safety and security in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Yet, the FCC seems to be heading in the opposite direction. There is a solution to this issue that the FCC could accept—allow UWB devices to operate above 6 GHz and avoid restricted safety-of-life aviation frequencies. No level or amount of interference—no matter how weak, intermittent or infrequent—is acceptable for aviation. It is of paramount importance for the FCC to ensure that UWB technologies avoid any interference with transmissions in restricted spectrum bands. Anything else significantly threatens aviation safety—a risk too great to impose on the public.”

Testing conducted by federal government agencies and universities has shown that UWB devices can create a risk to public safety by disrupting the navigation systems of airlines and other transportation operations. In numerous submissions to the FCC, and in related letters to the Department of Transportation (DOT), other Cabinet members and agency heads, the technical basis for these concerns are well documented. Multiple parties have recommended that UWB devices not be permitted to operate in restricted spectrum bands, not operate below 6 GHz, and that the FCC establish a regulatory process to allow those categories of UWB devices that can operate safely to be approved, developed and brought to market as quickly as possible. The Department of Transportation, Department of Defense (DOD), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have expressed similar concerns.

ATA continues to urge the FCC to reject the notion that opponents of proposed unlicensed UWB devices must demonstrate that the proposed devices will cause harmful interference. Regarding the FCC’s forthcoming decision, Hallett noted, “We firmly take the position that the burden to demonstrate that a proposed unlicensed device will not cause harmful interference to authorized aviation technologies lies with the device proponent. Nothing in the Communications Act of 1934, as cited by the FCC, shifts the ultimate burden of persuasion to others. To do so in this proceeding would turn established law, policy and procedure on its head. The ultimate burden must lie with the proponent to demonstrate that their proposed device will not cause harmful interference to existing authorized services.”
ATA praised the leadership of the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration, noting their consistent and unwavering support for ensuring that aviation remains the world’s safest form of transportation. In a January 16, 2002 letter from the Secretary of Transportation to Hallett, the Honorable Norman Y. Mineta wrote, “We are working diligently within the Government to address the issues surrounding UWB and to protect aviation’s communications, navigation and surveillance systems and other systems critical to our mission and to the Nation. We agree with you that interference is unacceptable for aviation and that adequate protections must be in place to assure the safety of the public.”