5G wireless networks threaten weather forecasts, NCAR expert tells Congress

Loss of satellite observations from spectrum interference could threaten public safety, economic growth

Jul 20, 2021 - by David Hosansky

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States must protect radio frequencies that are essential for weather forecasts and understanding the climate system, NCAR Associate Director William Mahoney told the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology today.

Mahoney, a meteorologist and expert in forecasting systems needed to protect life and property, testified at a committee hearing, “Spectrum Needs for Observations in Earth and Space Sciences.” His remarks came as meteorologists and other atmospheric scientists have raised increasing concerns that transmissions of 5G networks will interfere with satellite observations, significantly degrading weather forecasts, impairing our ability to advance our knowledge of the Earth system and prepare for climate change.

“At a time of increasing weather hazard vulnerability, it is imperative that critical Earth observations be protected from interference,” Mahoney said in his prepared remarks. “The impact of lost Earth observing data could be catastrophic for the nation.”

Weather satellites measure and transmit water vapor data, a central ingredient for accurate forecasts, at a frequency of 23.8 GHz. The data will be vulnerable to interference if wireless companies begin using the 24 GHz band and other nearby frequencies for 5G technology, as anticipated by the Federal Communications Commission and the international agency that regulates global telecommunications. Meteorologists cannot switch to a different part of the spectrum because Earth’s natural emissions occur only at certain frequencies.

William Mahoney
William Mahoney

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report yesterday recommending that the Federal Communications Commission and National Telecommunications and Information Commission update or clarify their processes to minimize the risks of spectrum interference.

Mahoney warned that the loss of Earth system data could also affect natural disaster risk reduction and homeland security and defense operations.

“The significant progress that has been made in recent years in weather forecasting skill is largely attributable to these observing technologies and the use of Earth observations in weather prediction models by forecasters and the atmospheric science research community,” Mahoney told the committee. “The socioeconomic benefits associated with the meteorological use of radio frequency spectrum are central to the success of society and must be accounted for in optimal spectrum management.”

“Critically, virtually every sector of the nation’s economy is weather-sensitive and any degradation of Earth observation data for scientific and operational uses can be expected to have significant negative financial and safety impacts,” he added.

The committee also heard from Andrew Von Ah of the Government Accountability Office, David Lubar of the Aerospace Corporation, Jordan Gerth of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Jennifer Manner of EchoStar Corporation/Hughes Network Systems.

Read the transcript of Mahoney's prepared testimony.

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