After a series of delays, 5G services were established in 46 U.S. markets on January 19, operating frequencies in a radio spectrum called the C-band. These frequencies can be close to those operated by radio altimeters, an important part of safety equipment in aircraft.
Turkish Airlines flight
The risk of flying an aircraft with a compromised radio altimeter can be disastrous. In 2009 for example, a Turkish Airlines flight experienced faulty radio altimeter readings while on approach, contributing to its fatal impact landing that resulted in nine deaths.
Federal Aviation Administration, and providers Verizon
As an outcome of the security concerns, some places were exempt from the January 19 launch. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and providers Verizon, and AT&T have since approved actions that they believe will enable more planes to safely operate key airports while also enabling more towers to deploy 5G service.
The FAA told it now has more precise data about the exact location of wireless transmitters and helped a more thorough analysis of how 5G C-band signals interact with sensitive aircraft instruments. The FAA utilized this data to determine that it is likely to safely and more specifically map the size and shape of the places near airports where 5G signals are mitigated, shrinking the areas where wireless operators are deferring their antenna activations. This, the FAA tells, will allow the wireless providers to safely turn on more towers as they deploy new 5G service in major markets across the United States.
- On February 3, the Head of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said the stuttered launch of 5G and related aviation concerns in the U.S. could have been avoided. “Numerous aviation stakeholders said concerns to the Trump-appointed, former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, before and after the FCC voted to open up the C-band for wireless use before in 2018. But they were dismissed.” DeFazio cited various examples from 2019 and 202 of letters expressing concern.
DeFazio was addressing a committee hearing titled, “Finding the Right Frequency: 5G Deployment & Aviation Safety” called by the Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) addressed a panel hearing. The FAA’s Administrator Steve Dickson was also present.
DeFazio told he does not oppose the deployment of 5G but argued that a “dropped call or the inability to access a slightly faster internet connection is not about the same as the risk of a potential aviation accident”.
He cautioned that using other countries as examples of successful and safe 5G deployment were unhelpful because most of these countries use either drastically lower 5G power levels than the U.S., operate 5G further away from the frequency operated by aircraft radio altimeters, or have demanded significant security mitigations, such as airport exclusion zones or 5G antennae placement needs, to limit the potential for harmful interference to aircraft.
“As I’ve said before, to make this comparison without acknowledging the critical differences that exist between the U.S. and every other country that has deployed 5G technology is disingenuous, misleading, and displays a glaring disregard for the potential safety measures required to save the flying people.”
Alaska Airlines canceled over 50 flights
- Larsen remembered a current event. “On January 24th, 25th, and 26th, Alaska Airlines revoked over 50 flights at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, my hometown. Was it the thicker than usual 24-hour fog? No, aircraft fly in worse. Was it the Embraer 175 radio altimeter? Also no. Or the runway orientation? Was it pointing the wrong way? That’s a silly assumption to make. Was it just the presence of a radio tower with a soon-to-be-started 5G transmitter? No, not just that. Unfortunately, the problem was all of those things reaching together in a perfect storm of technology.”
“This true story about 5G and aviation safety shows that the problem we are managing today has more layers than a Dagwood sandwich,” Larsen told.
Larsen called for an informal or formalized communication between the FAA and the FCC to be installed. In addition, he guided an informal, non-governmental discussion “on 5G, on radio altimeters, on following steps that can be operated to inform the more formal mechanisms”.
FAA Administrator Dickson spoke of the work to date and the effect on the aviation industry. He told that while the buffer zones set by the wireless providers reduce the strength of 5G signals around airports, they do not completely eliminate it.
He counted that the FAA will move quickly to operate testing data and other insights to further refine its models and safely allow additional 5G deployment. “We are sure we will work through this issue safely with minimal disruptions, but we believe that some altimeters—especially older models operated by certain segments of the aviation industry—may not receive support as being safe in the presence of 5G emissions and interference, and may require to be returned.”
During the hearing, Dickson was asked by representative Tim Burchett why the FAA waited until a month before the initially scheduled rollout of 5G to bring safety mitigation actions. Dickson answered that the FAA does not control the telecommunication companies and therefore did not have the data required until capable to work with them now. “And as we discovered when we started that dialogue, the data that we were requesting from them, they had never provided to the government back.”
At the hearing, Captain Joe DePete, President of the Air Line Pilots Association, told the FAA should be funded and set to remain better informed and included as a key stakeholder in any national spectrum strategies, including mobile wireless (5G or future) radio spectrum strategies. “The FAA should be empowered to interact directly with FCC when needed and not be limited in coordination by relying on another federal agency that does not understand aviation’s carefully designed and very robust safety risk mitigation strategy,” Captain DePete told.
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U.S. aviation industry
Airlines for America presented data on the impact of 5G since January and said the issue would likely take years rather than weeks to fully address. “The U.S. aviation industry should not be in this position and the process that led to this operational nightmare should be held up as a cautionary tale of government communication and coordination gone awry,” Airlines for America President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio said. “It is not a partisan problem; it is a government process problem that desperately needs to be addressed.
One can assume there will be 6G, 7G, and many other spectrum utilization issues in the future; those actions should be seamlessly integrated into the broader economy without causing seismic disruptions to critical industry segments.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers for the present dynamic, but a framework can be put in place to make sure this never happens again to our industry or any other for that matter.”
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