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FCC considers opening airways at cost of weather safety

Satellite data to make room for selfies and viral streams

Black lines are data gaps on an older GOES satellite taken 17 August 2015. Radio-frequency transmission interference could increase by adding users to the data feed.
Black lines are data gaps on an older GOES satellite taken 17 August 2015. Radio-frequency transmission interference could increase by adding users to the data feed. (Photo: CIMSS/SSEC)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Weather forecast and emergency response may be jeopardized as companies petition the FCC to auction off parts of the airway space used by NOAA weather communications.

The rise of the Internet of Things and boom in mobile data is cramming the channels that scientists use to get critical weather information to keep safe.

Data from satellites are essential to all warning forecasts and this information is transmitted by radio waves across distances. 

Take for instance the GOES-16 satellite which alerted meteorologists to the growing danger from Hurricane Michael as it intensified leading up to landfall. 

Images traveled from space each minute using a part of the spectrum dedicated to federal agencies in the 1675-1695 MHz range called the weather band. 

Adding extra users to this range would cause interference in critical weather and other environmental data which could put disaster responders and peoples lives at risk.  

During  2015, the effects of interference briefly blocked the view of a tropical cyclone in the Pacific.

There is only so much room for data to be spread across the finite electromagnetic spectrum and competition is high between radio broadcasting, television, two-way radios, mobile phones, communication satellites and wireless networking. 

The challenge today is to determine how to best share this resource with the private sector. 

Rules in the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015 set aside spectrum bands for federal agencies like NOAA but South Dakota Sen. John Thune wants more to be done to release these bands to the private sector.

And the incentive for the FCC to protect these bands would likely take a back seat in exchange for the lucrative deals in the face of rising mobile data use along with the incentive for Congress to raise revenue to pay down the nation's fiscal deficit.

Satellite transmissions are the most reliable way to send information as long as a receiving dish is available.  

This is not the first attempt to auction dedicated scientific and emergency communication channels. Past attempts to capitalize the resource raised concerns by the American Meteorological Society (AMS).

The director of the AMS urged the FCC not to proceed with spectrum sharing since it would pose challenge the weather enterprise engaged in serving public safety interests.

The FCC estimates that sharing the weather band could result in revenues of $60 million a year. 

In contrast, the nation will have spent around $11 billion on the GOES-16 program by 2036 to ensure that Americans are aware of adverse weather for the next two decades.

Much of that cost would be lost if the data can’t get to its users.


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