Institute for Telecommunication Sciences / About ITS / Awards / 2023 Gold Medal for Scientific/Engineering Achievement

2023 Gold Medal for Scientific/Engineering Achievement

February 6, 2024, Washington, D.C. — Six ITS and three Office of Spectrum Management engineers and researchers were honored with the 2023 U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal for Scientific/Engineering Achievement for implementing innovative spectrum compatibility testing to permit coexistence of aircraft safety-of-life radio altimeters and 5G C-band operations.

The winners for their distinguished and exceptional performance were Frank H. Sanders, Geoffrey A. Sanders, Kenneth R. Calahan, Savio Tran, Kenneth R. Tilley, and Kenneth J. Brewster, all of ITS, along with Edward Drocella, Nickolas LaSorte, and Charles Glass, of NTIA’s Office of Spectrum Management.

The circumstances leading to the group’s involvement were these: In early 2022, while AT&T and Verizon were preparing to commission C-Band 5G base stations throughout the U.S., aviation authorities and airlines leaders were simultaneously expressing grave concerns that potentially unsafe interference from 5G mobile-phone signals near airports could interfere with altimeters — and thus result in aircraft crashes. The deployment of 5G systems near airports was delayed.

In coordination with original equipment manufacturers of 5G, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and under intense public and White House scrutiny, the ITS team worked with dozens of stakeholders to develop a test plan; coordinate use of commercial and military equipment; make critical measurements; and model electromagnetic compatibility to verify mitigation for safe use of spectrum licenses worth $81B.

Over a 17-month period — an unprecedentedly short time frame — examples of all commercially available 5G base stations were deployed at the Table Mountain Field Site and Radio Quiet Zone while the ITS engineers fabricated an innovative computer-controlled measurement system to measure 5G ground and skyward emissions for all types of 5G equipment being deployed across the country. U.S. Army helicopters were coordinated and specially equipped for purposes of the measurement system.

A helicopter flies over a truck mounted with a 5G cell-phone tower on a bright day with a blue sky full of clouds.

The group’s work demonstrated that 5G transmissions should not interfere with radar altimeters that incorporate suitable altimeter receiver filters and suppression of 5G-base stations’ out-of-band and skyward emissions.

More than a hundred organizations previewed the test plans and results, which NTIA also shared internationally with other spectrum regulators. The group’s findings were briefed to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and publicly reported in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and other outlets, promptly and effectively assuaging concerns of Congress and the American public about deployment of new 5G technology.

Both in terms of design and capability, the core airborne 5G radiation measurement system designed, built, tested, and flown for this award-winning effort represents a state-of-the-art advancement for conducting spectrum coexistence engineering measurements, studies, and analysis. As such, the approach developed by the group can be easily replicated for future spectrum coexistence studies of new radio systems and legacy/incumbent radio systems.