5G and Airline Safety: Why the US Is Concerned While Other Countries Are Not

The executives of major U.S. airlines are urging telecommunication companies to delay the rollout of 5G services near airports to prevent what has been described as a "catastrophic" aviation crisis.

Credit: Tayfun Coskun via Getty Images

In a joint letter, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue, along with cargo carriers UPS and FedEx, said that the new C-Band 5G service that AT&T and Verizon were supposed to deploy would interfere with cockpit equipment of planes. This poses a number of safety risks for passengers and could even render planes unusable, leading to massive flight disruptions and chaos in airports around the world, as CNET reports.


"Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the travelling and shipping public will essentially be grounded," said the airlines. "This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays."


The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has had the same concern since last year, warning how having 5G wireless network bands near airports could throw off planes’ altimeters, the device that measures the plane’s altitude. Altimeters help planes safely land in places where visibility is low and weather conditions aren’t ideal.


What’s particularly curious about this new concern, however, is that, as of right now, it seems to be unique to the U.S. Europe also has 5G, but so far, there has yet to be any disruption or interference incident. And there’s an explanation for this.


According to the experts cited by financial magazine Barron’s, the difference between the U.S. and Europe mostly stems from the allocated frequencies of 5G that the two countries are using.


5G operates on certain parts of the radio frequency spectrum to allow data transmission from the phone tower to the phone and vice versa. The problem is that radio altimeters are close neighbours to 5G in the radio spectrum. And when a 5G station on the ground transmits to, say, a phone inside the plane, it could interfere with the altimeter’s operations.


Barron’s says that the 5G frequencies in the U.S. are within the 3.7GHz to 3.98GHZ range, which puts it dangerously close to the 4.2GHz to 4.4GHz frequency used by altimeters. In comparison, Europe’s 5G allocation is between the 3.4GHz to 3.8GHz range. Singapore will likely fall in the same boat as Europe, with the first batch of local carriers using 3.5Ghz bands. Being far from the frequencies used by altimeters will also make altimeter filters more effective at reducing interference from 5G signals.

5G telecommunication tower. Credit: George Frey via Reuters

France, meanwhile, allowed 5G operations near airports, albeit with some restrictions. For instance, antennas are angled downwards to reduce interference and create a buffer zone for planes to land with less risk of disruptions. The FAA later followed suit creating 5G buffer zones in some of the busiest airports in the U.S. to maintain the aviation safety standards.


It’s also worth noting that telecom-industry reps from around the world believe that C-band connections do not cause any interference with plane equipment, as The Wall Street Journal reports. They cite Federal Communications Commission technical experts and analyses by international regulators to back up their argument.


At this point, it’s still unclear as to how the U.S. will proceed with this situation, with all parties involved seemingly finding the best way to maximise passenger safety and minimise flight interruptions. But AT&T and Verizon are reportedly still scheduled to turn on their 5G service nationwide on 19 January, unless federal regulators prevent them from doing so or a new agreement is reached.

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