Some major U. S. airlines warned of potentially devastating disruptions, and other international airlines canceled flights into the U. S. due to the recent rollout of 5G service in the United States. But, only minor disruptions were reported on the first day of the rollout of new 5G networks in cities across the United States. Some regional airlines will have to wait for clearance to fly into certain airports where interference was predicted to affect them during bad weather.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said 5G deployment involves a new combination of power levels, frequencies, proximity to flight operations, and other factors, and therefore the agency “must impose restrictions on flight operations using certain types of radio altimeter equipment close to antennas in 5G networks.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a statement saying this: “Nearly two years ago, the FCC — the expert agency charged by Congress with regulating wireless carriers’ transmissions — authorized C-Band operations pursuant to a detailed, 258-page regulatory decision. The FCC’s order adopted comprehensive rules that safeguard aeronautical services from any harmful interference. It was a decision based on sound engineering, good process, and real-world experience, including the fact that C-Band operations are live in nearly 40 countries today without any negative impacts on aviation. And it was part of a broader set of smart policies that positioned the United States to lead the world in 5G.”
The statement from that agency goes on to blame the Biden Administration for a lack of leadership on the issue adding, “This is a setback for U.S. leadership in 5G. Indeed, the negative consequences that flow from this type of dysfunctional process are not limited to the facts of this case. It is going to make it even harder for the U.S. to reach and stick with sound spectrum decisions going forward.”
Meanwhile, as concerns grew and the rollout neared, FAA, FCC and service providers AT&T and Verizon tried to patch up hard feelings and struck a deal with the help of the White House to limit the rollout at certain airports to preempt problems that might be caused by the C-band frequencies being used.
Other providers like TMobile jumped to disavow their networks’ use of the frequencies in question. A statement from TMobile said this: “5G and aviation safety have been in the headlines lately, and it’s causing some confusion that we want to help clear up. First, I want to be clear that T-Mobile’s 5G network, already covering over 1.7 million square miles and 310 million people nationwide, and our customers are not affected by this. While headlines talk about ‘5G,’ this issue is really with one specific frequency of spectrum called C-band, which T-Mobile 5G does not use today.”
To be clear, the C-band frequencies are very near to the frequencies used by radar altimeters, leading to the concerns about interference. And the aviation community rightly raised concerns about the potential for interference, as did the FCC. But, 40 countries in Europe, Asia and many other parts of the world had already implemented their 5G service with no negative impacts to flight operations.
And to give credit where due, the FCC did also raise the concern much earlier on in this process.
Yes, the airspace around airports in the U. S. is some of the most complex in the world. And other countries used lower power levels (the U. S. 5G is 2.5 times stronger than that used in France, for example), have adjusted antennas, used different placements of those antennas to reduce interference and used frequencies that were farther from the aviation equipment that could be affected.
So where do things stand now?
Nearly 90% of the rollout of 5G took place. Some areas near some airports will have delays for 5G service. The FAA said it is working with airlines and the telecommunications industry to ensure that radio signals from the newly activated wireless systems can coexist safely with flight operations in the U. S.
5G service near the airports of concern will be tested and the service implemented as it is determined safe or solutions found for any issues. As of late January, 78% of the U.S. commercial fleet, which includes some regional jets, was cleared to be able to perform low-visibility landings at airports where wireless companies deployed 5G C-band, and the percentage was increasing.
However, the FAA said they “do anticipate some altimeters will be too susceptible to 5G interference. To preserve safety, aircraft with those altimeters will be prohibited from performing low-visibility landings where 5G is deployed because the altimeter could provide inaccurate information.”
The FAA was quick to deflect blame for the confusion and delays, saying, “The FAA, the aviation industry, telecommunications companies, and their regulators, have been discussing and weighing these interference concerns for years, in the U.S. and internationally. Recent dialogue has helped to establish information sharing between aviation and telecommunications sectors and newly agreed measures to reduce the risk of disruption, but these issues are ongoing and will not be resolved overnight.”
As we went to press, the FAA issued this statement: “Through continued technical collaboration, the FAA, Verizon, and AT&T have agreed on steps that will enable more aircraft to safely use key airports while also enabling more towers to deploy 5G service. The FAA appreciates the strong communication and collaborative approach with wireless companies, which have provided more precise data about the exact location of wireless transmitters and supported more thorough analysis of how 5G C-band signals interact with sensitive aircraft instruments. The FAA used this data to determine that it is possible to safely and more precisely map the size and shape of the areas around airports where 5G signals are mitigated, shrinking the areas where wireless operators are deferring their antenna activations. This will enable the wireless providers to safely turn on more towers as they deploy new 5G service in major markets across the United States.”