Could better cell service hurt your forecast?

Posted: Updated:

As we head into 2020, one of the top stories of the technology world will be the continued rollout of next-generation “5G” wireless signals. 5G promises faster and stronger cellphone service, but could it also adversely affect your local forecast?

According to warnings by meteorologists, lawmakers and federal science agencies, that is a real possibility.

Studies completed by NOAA, NASA and the Navy warn that 5G equipment could interfere with transmissions from polar-orbiting satellites, which are used to gather weather data. And that could affect the reliability of weather forecasts.

NOAA has been particularly critical. Some there have even warned that in a worst-case scenario, 5G interference could set weather forecast accuracy back by nearly 30% - an equivalent of 40 years! 

But the FCC has not been on the same page. They maintain that interference issues are being blown out of proportion, and that such strict limits are not necessary.

In 2019, the FCC auctioned off 24-gigahertz radio frequencies for 5G transmissions, which is dangerously close to the 23.8-gigahertz frequency that NOAA and NASA satellite sensors use to sense water vapor in the atmosphere. The fear is that cellphones transmitting 5G signals that close to their own frequency could confuse weather satellites and thus lead to poor forecasts.

Back in April, FCC Chair Ajit Pai said that NASA and NOAA were making “exaggerated and unverified last-minute assertions.” He also noted that the agency’s auction of the frequencies to wireless providers garnered the U.S. Treasury almost $2 billion.

Meteorologists are concerned that the FCC’s rush to sell off these frequencies will open the door to selling other essential ones that are crucial to weather instrumentation. Frequencies currently under consideration for the FCC to auction off include those involving signals from streams, oceans and seismic monitors. NOAA satellites transmit these to emergency services, enabling warnings about tsunamis, floods and earthquakes.

Because cellphone traffic is constantly in flux, this interference will be essentially random, meaning there is little chance that satellite operators could account or compensate for interference in a methodical way. Some have suggested a system of temporarily switching 5G signals off while weather satellites pass over cities, but that would involve a 5G blackout for entire regions during that time.

At the International Telecommunication Union conference in Egypt this past November, nations from around the world agreed on how much of a buffer water vapor measurements would need to have from 5G signal interference. The agreement set a limit on interference between the FCC’s suggestion and what NOAA said was safe. The ITU agreement also includes continued monitoring of any interference, and to re-evaluate the matter during the next conference in 2023.

Despite the compromise, many weather experts warn that significant disruption will still occur. So in early December, bipartisan leaders of the House Science Committee wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking them to look into this disagreement.

In an excerpt from the letter, Science Committee Chairman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) and ranking Republican Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) state, “We are deeply concerned about the potential for degradation of our nation’s weather forecasts. Earth observing satellites are critically important for protecting the lives and property of the American people from severe weather.”

Meanwhile, the cellphone industry promises that 5G will be a $565 billion industry by 2034, making its adoption a priority of the Trump administration.

Which makes sense to many critics, who believe that this is all about money. They believe that the goal is to do whatever it takes for the U.S. to beat China at 5G, with little to no care for any consequences.

So far, 5G is available in about 40 countries worldwide, including the U.S., where it has been launched in a number of select cities.

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