Up in the air: Why US airlines are scared of 5G

7 Jan 2022

Image: © lightpoet/Stock.adobe.com

Airlines in the US have been at loggerheads with mobile networks over the deployment of 5G and its potential impact on flight safety.

Earlier this week, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest mobile network operators in the US, relented to requests from the aviation industry and the Biden administration to delay the deployment of 5G services.

The decision was a culmination of a long period of disagreements between the aviation industry and mobile networks that ended in a compromise for the latter after US government intervention. The point of contention: airlines claim 5G interferes with flight signals.

Last month, United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby called on AT&T and Verizon to delay their plans to use the C-Band spectrum for 5G wireless services due to be deployed on 5 January. Following a US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue, Kirby said “it would be a catastrophic failure of government” if it was allowed to proceed.

Requests from the aviation industry led to US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) head Steve Dickson sending a letter to the two mobile networks requesting them to reconsider their decision and delay deployment for two weeks.

After initially refusing to budge on the grounds that the aviation industry had two years to prepare for the deployment, AT&T and Verizon agreed to go ahead with the short delay on Monday (3 January). The deployment will now go ahead on 19 January.

“We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues,” AT&T said in a statement seen by Reuters.

Can 5G and airlines co-exist?

The short answer is yes, but there’s a catch. 5G mobile networks using C-Band spectrum and airline travel can indeed co-exist – and they already do in nearly 40 countries where US airlines regularly travel. Both the FAA and the telecoms industry agree on this.

In a statement on 3 January, the FAA admitted that the two industries have co-existed in other countries because the power levels have been reduced around airports and there has been ample cross-industry collaboration prior to deployment. “For years, we have been working to find a solution in the United States,” it said.

With no solution yet in place, the FAA asked AT&T and Verizon for an additional two weeks to prepare for potential flight disruptions caused by any interference that may arise from the 5G deployment.

Frequencies in the C-Band spectrum are close to those used by radar altimeters, an important piece of safety equipment used by aircraft. “To make sure that this does not lead to hazardous interference, the FAA requires that radar altimeters are accurate and reliable,” said the FAA statement.

AT&T and Verizon have agreed to not operate 5G base stations along runways for six months while the FAA takes time to further investigate the impact. This, according to Axios, is similar to restrictions imposed in France.

US president Joe Biden called the decision to delay “a significant step in the right direction”.

According to Reuters, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said following the concerns raised in the US that “no risk of unsafe interference has been identified in Europe”. South Korea, too, has reported no interference with radio waves since the deployment of 5G in 2019.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic