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Don Paul: FCC auction plans could jeopardize weather forecasting

Don Paul

When I first got wind of what the Federal Communications Commission was considering doing with large parts of the broadcast spectrum used to communicate vital weather information, I said to myself, “Nah. That can’t be right. Someone’s got this story messed up.”

Turns out, the FCC is indeed embarking on a program which could jeopardize weather prediction and the public safety which depends on it. One good illustration of satellite interference is shown here.

A few years ago, the FCC calculated there is lots of federal revenue potential to be gained in auctioning off what we loosely call “spectrum.” Wireless radio frequencies which make up spectrum, and the licensing to capitalize on them, can be auctioned off by the FCC for profit. Broadcast companies have already participated in selling of some of their unused and lightly used portions of the spectrum several years ago.

In fact, large portions of the spectrum the FCC now wants to put on the auction block are those used for transmission of weather satellite data, weather balloon data transmission, ocean buoy data transmission and weather radar data. That includes the lifesaving network of National Weather Service and Department of Defense Doppler radars in this NOAA image.

The coming advent of 5G means commercial wireless providers will need a great deal more spectrum for that in-demand technology, and they are anxious to bid on what they claim they must have.

The question is which parts of the spectrum can the FCC auction off with minimal negative impact? If NASA, NOAA and the Commerce Department are correct, it is not the weather data communications segment. The Washington Post obtained a letter to the FCC at the end of February in which NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross urged the FCC to remove this auction proposal from their website. In their letter, they stated the proposal “would have a significant negative impact on the transmission of critical Earth science data — an American taxpayer investment spanning decades and billions of dollars with data supporting public safety, natural disaster and weather forecasting."

The letter went on to ask the FCC to take down the proposal “immediately” before a meeting scheduled for next Monday in light of the purpose of the meeting with NASA being “to continue the long-standing interagency reconciliation process on this important topic.”

Last Friday, the FCC summarily rejected the request in the letter. They claimed they had submitted the issue to the State Department, whom the FCC views as the ultimate “arbiter.” The FCC went on: “Given the lack of respect for the Department of State’s decision and the deliberate and ongoing efforts to undermine the U.S. Government’s proposal both here and abroad, the FCC will respectfully decline the invitation to attend the March 11 meeting,” the FCC letter said.

The FCC intends to begin the auction of this part of spectrum bandwidth within a few days. Just to explain what kinds of weather data is transmitted through this microwave spectrum, here is a diagram from the American Meteorological Society.

Jordan Gerth, a leading University of Wisconsin satellite data scholar (the university houses one of the world’s key satellite data gathering and transmission centers) told The Post corruption of this data by spectrum narrowing would hurt forecast accuracy all the way out to the three- to seven-day time frame. It is satellite microwave emissions which form a foundation for the sophisticated atmospheric computer models now used here and around the world.

Before any spectrum is made available to other users, “we need to really understand the degree of interference and what kind of forecast skill decrease those missing observations would lead to,” Gerth said.

There is an international meeting on the issue of interference within the spectrum scheduled for the fall, involving 193 nations. From appearances, it appears the FCC is in an inexplicable rush on this critical issue when it clearly needs more scientific examination and deliberation beyond the scope of limited FCC expertise.

It is understandable why the FCC feels pressure and sees financial opportunities from the great demand emanating from the wireless carriers who want to get 5G out there and in use. But without even understanding the meteorological risks in auctioning too broad a part of the spectrum seems downright dangerous and potentially foolhardy.

To quote the parent scientific society of atmospheric scientists and related disciplines: “The radio frequency spectrum is a limited resource and competition for it is intense and growing, particularly with the rapid expansion of wireless communication,” according to a memo from the American Meteorological Society policy program. “This competition puts weather, water, and climate related uses of the radio spectrum at risk. It will be extremely important for decision makers to understand and account for meteorological uses of radio spectrum that help meet basic human needs before reallocation decisions are made.”

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