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How does 5G pose a threat to the airline industry?

Verizon 5G nodes
Verizon 5G nodes (Image credit: Android Central)

Airline officials have warned the FAA, the FCC, the President's office, and the Department of Transportation that the activation of AT&T and Verizon 5G cell sites in close proximity to major airports could lead to a "catastrophic" aviation crisis. To drive the point home, it's said that C band 5G service scheduled to begin this week could render a "significant number" of aircraft unusable and this could lead to stranding tens of thousands of American travelers.

As a precaution, AT&T and Verizon have decided to not activate a number of cell sites that could interfere with airline safety or lead to grounded flights. AT&T and Verizon are frustrated because this information isn't new — it's been known since 2019 — but has never been acted on. It's confusing, to say the least, in part because none of the actual players is bothering to explain it completely even though it affects the best Android phones.

What's happening?

5G radio tower

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

In early 2021 C band spectrum in the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz range was auctioned off to carriers for use in 5G networks. Like most other countries, the U.S. tightly controls the licensing and usage of much of the available radio spectrum. This means that carriers need to lease it and follow specific rules governing its use. It's also worth mentioning that T-Mobile isn't using any of the spectra in question here and that AT&T and Verizon seem to have followed every rule and law in good faith.

It turns out that aircraft altimeters (and possibly other instrumentation) operate in the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz range. Because this is close to the frequency that carriers will use for high-speed networks, there is a legitimate fear that interference could occur, especially when close to a cell transmission site where the signal would be more powerful.

The readouts from these instruments are used to help detect weather anomalies and assist in the safe landing of aircraft, which is pretty important. Should AT&T and Verizon enable all of the cell sites that are ready, the FAA would need to ban the use of these instruments at around 40 U.S. airports. This means flight disruptions and lost revenue for the airlines.

This is a U.S.-specific problem because of the radio spectrum auctioned off. In Europe, for example, the EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) says no risk has been identified in the E.U. because the standards set for 5G communications are in the 3.4 to 3.8 GHz range. This leaves enough "dead" space to act as a buffer between communications so there is no potential for overlap.

Airport

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

In addition, the broadcast power level for 5G networks in Europe is lower than it would be in the U.S. With lower strength signals the potential for interference is further limited.

It's not just the E.U. that seems to have solved this issue. South Korea is another example, as 5G frequencies are between 3.4 and 3.7 GHz and also have lower broadcast strength limitations set by the government. As the CTIA notes, the C band spectrum for 5G telecommunications is in use in nearly 40 countries worldwide with no reported effects on aircraft equipment operating in the internationally designated 4.2 to 4.4 GHz bands.

The bigger question may be how to fix it. For the immediate future, Verizon and AT&T will need to halt plans to turn on cell sites near airports but this isn't a good long-term solution. Neither is changing the frequency used by aircraft instruments because that's an international standard. Lowering transmission power limits or changing the spectrum used for 5G may not be possible without erasing all the progress that has been made with 5G so far.

It feels like better planning could have prevented this, but as a layman, it's easy to say that. I'm not sure what would be needed to ensure there is no radio interference or how to even certify new equipment that is still operational, but that may be what's required in the end.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

13 Comments
  • The FAA, FCC, airlines and networks really could have been more proactive on this.
  • The whole issue has been known for at least two years, maybe longer. Plenty of time to test and make changes in Altimeters. From what I have read the biggest issue right now is with the Boeing 777. The testing could have been done a long time ago if an issue was found a fix could have been in place by now. The FAA and the FCC should have worked out this issue long before the auction.
  • I guess it doesn't matter where one's sympathies lie with regards to the companies involved we really can't have gigantic planes loaded with passengers crashing into the ground because someone is trying to get their coworkers Starbucks order. Figure this out or don't turn the **** on.
  • listened to a discussion on this on the radio yesterday involving a commercial airline pilot: the reaction by the airlines is apparently overblown. there are three different instruments that operate near the 5G frequencies: two are at above 30,000 feet, so no issue. one is briefly used, and only during landing, and only under the most extreme weather circumstances - the kind where instead of landing, you circle the airport until the weather passes, or you're redirected to another airport. fwiw
  • That is the way now. Over react. Someone somewhere will be concerned about your loud complaining.
  • Eh, the airlines don't want to get sued into oblivion if one of their aircraft crashes because of this interference.
  • If it's only needed when the weather is at its worst while landing, isn't it fairly important, though? If all planes has to stop landing because of bad weather it's going to make a lot of passengers miffed.
  • Action by the FAA and the airlines: cry wolf and let slip the dogs of lobbying! (no studies, no research, no science) (The FCC has already done its job: certifying that there is no problem with interference in C-band.)
  • If there really is an issue with radar altimeters and the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz band, move the US 5G to 3.4 to 3.8. Sounds hard, but I don't imagine that 5G equipment is limited to being used in the US OR Europe/Korea. I imagine it is flexible enough to be programmed for the band authorized. I don't think phones are a big issue as they also are likely made to be compatible world-wide, rather than only in specific locations. The catch is bureaucratic, FCC licensing. Seems more likely a solution than redesigning and retrofitting radar-altimeters in all aircraft. Is 'unfortunate' that the FCC/FAA didn't work this out before now, but here we are. Seems the other alternatives are just not have 5G near airports, where it would actually be useful, or turn it on and hope for the best.
  • The airlines and the FCC has know about this since 2019 and did nothing about it. Not to mention that this 5G band is being use in other countries near airports with no issue.
  • Re-read the article, different bands in the US.
  • No comment, No comment
  • "AT&T and Verizon are frustrated because this information isn't new — it's been known since 2019 — but has never been acted on." If that is true, both AT&T and Verizon also sat on their behind knowing nothing was being done and now they are frustrated? what a load bullocks. both are just whinner and do nothing conundrum like airline officials, FAA, and FCC