Do 5G Telecoms Pose a Threat to Airline Safety?

As AT&T and Verizon roll out new 5G services this week, the CEOs of major US passenger and freight airlines have warned of a “catastrophic” aviation disaster.

They said that the new C band 5G service, which is slated to launch on Wednesday, might render a large number of planes useless, causing havoc on US flights and potentially stranding tens of thousands of Americans abroad, Reuters reports.

The following is the background of the conflict:

What happened?

In early 2021, the US auctioned mid-range 5G spectrum in the 3.7-3.98 GHz region on the C band spectrum to mobile phone operators for roughly $80 billion.

What’s the big deal about that?

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cautioned that new 5G technology may interfere with sensors like altimeters, which monitor how high an airplane is flying above the earth.

Altimeters operate in the 4.2-4.4 GHz band, and the auctioned frequencies are believed to be too close to this range. Altimeter readouts are used to aid automated landings and to detect harmful currents known as wind shear, in addition to altitude.

Last month, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby stated that the FAA’s 5G regulations will prohibit the use of radio altimeters at approximately 40 of the country’s busiest airports. The guidelines, according to US airlines, could cause up to 4% of daily flights to be canceled.

If the issue is not rectified, Kirby believes that in the event of bad weather, cloud cover, or even significant smog, “you could only perform visual approaches essentially” at major US airports.

What does frequency have to do with it?

The faster the service, the higher the frequency in the spectrum. Operators will need to operate at higher frequencies in order to get the most out of 5G.

Some of the C band spectrum that was auctioned was previously used for satellite radio, but with the switch to 5G, there will be significantly more traffic.

What do the telecommunications corporations have to say?

According to Verizon and AT&T, C band 5G has been deployed in around 40 other nations without causing aircraft disturbance.

They’ve agreed to set up buffer zones around 50 US airports for six months, similar to those in France, to decrease the danger of interference.

Why isn’t there a problem everywhere else?

In 2019, the European Union established specifications for mid-range 5G frequencies in the 3.4-3.8 GHz band, which is lower than the frequency expected to be used in the United States. The bandwidth was auctioned throughout Europe and is currently being used without trouble in several of the bloc’s 27 member states.

On December 17, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which supervises 31 countries, stated that the problem was limited to U.S. airspace. “At this time, there is no risk of hazardous interference in Europe,” it stated.

France’s spectrum (3.6-3.8 GHz) is further away from the band (4.2-4.4 GHz) used for altimeters in the US, according to FAA officials, and France’s 5G power level is much lower than what is approved in the US.

For numerous years, Verizon has stated that it will not use spectrum that is closer to the higher band.

The 5.G mobile communication frequency in South Korea is 3.42-3.7 GHz, and no reports of radio wave interference have been reported since the introduction of 5G in April 2019.

There are currently 5G mobile communication wireless stations in operation near airports, but no concerns have been reported.

In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission, CTIA, a US wireless trade group, stated, “Wireless carriers in nearly 40 countries throughout Europe and Asia now use the C band for 5G, with no reported effects on radio altimeters that operate in the same internationally designated 4.2-4.4 GHz band.”

What can be done about it?

In the short term, AT&T and Verizon agreed to postpone the activation of some cellular towers near major airports in order to avoid major flight disruptions in the United States.

In the long run, the FAA needs to clear and allow the great majority of the US commercial airline fleet to land in low visibility at many of the airports where 5G C-band will be implemented. This entails approving altimeters for use near 5G base stations.

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