A political battle over 5G could ruin air traffic: What you should know

These changes could lead to flight delays or diversions affecting tens of millions of passengers on hundreds of thousands of flights, according to estimates from the aviation industry.

It all comes down to a political fight for 5G, the next generation of mobile service technology that has started to be supported in the latest smartphones. Here’s what you need to know:

Transport regulators are worried that a version of 5G to be switched on in January could disrupt some aircraft, and many aviation industry groups share this fear – despite assurances from federal telecom regulators and wireless operators.

Boeing and Airbus want the Biden administration to postpone the roll-out of the 5G cell service, citing security concerns

Specifically, the Federal Aviation Administration is concerned that 5G mobile antennas near some airports – not airline passengers’ mobile devices – could throw readings from any aircraft equipment designed to tell pilots how far they are from the ground. These systems, known as radar altimeters, are used during a flight and are considered critical equipment. (Radar altimeters differ from standard altimeters, which rely on air pressure readings and do not use radio signals to measure altitude.)

The agency is so concerned that this month it issued an urgent order banning pilots from using the potentially affected altimeters around airports where poor visibility would otherwise require them. This new rule may prevent aircraft from arriving at some airports in certain circumstances, because pilots would not be able to land with instruments alone.

It is not entirely clear which airports this rule may affect. When it rolled out the order, the FAA said the exact airports would be specified later when they had more information from wireless operators about where the 5G infrastructure could be located.

The clock is ticking. On January 5, wireless operators are expected to activate the 5G service, which depends on the radio frequencies the FAA is concerned about.

According to a service map from the Federal Communications Commission, large parts of California, Florida, New England, Texas and the Midwest will receive 5G coverage. But aviation groups are warning about it It could endanger some of the country’s largest airports, including Los Angeles, New York and Houston.

How 5G signals work

The 5G signals will travel over radio frequencies collectively known as C-Band. This band of airwaves is attractive to wireless operators because it offers a good balance between mobile range and capacity – two main features of any wireless network. (Other sets of airwaves in addition to the C-Band are also used to carry 5G, but the current debate focuses on only the C-Band frequencies.)

On the range of radio frequencies used for wireless communication, the C-Band sits right next to the frequency band used by the aircraft’s altimeters. Well, almost: the two are intentionally separated by a so-called guard band – mainly “shiny” air waves – to protect against interference.

To further address any aviation risks, Verizon and AT&T – which owns WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company – offered in November to limit the power of the 5G antennas and take other precautions. The companies also agreed to postpone the development of 5G from 5 December 2021 to 5 January 2022.

But that has not been enough to allay the concerns of the FAA, whose 11-hour order would have “a huge negative impact on the aviation industry,” CEOs of Boeing and Airbus wrote in a letter Monday to the Department of Transportation. CEOs added: “We agree that 5G interference may adversely affect the aircraft’s ability to operate safely.”

The letter cites an estimate published by the industry group Airlines for America, which predicts that FAA restrictions will disrupt 345,000 passenger flights, 32 million passengers and 5,400 cargo flights. The FAA’s own order estimates that 6,800 US aircraft could be affected by the plan, along with 1,800 helicopters.

There is a lot of disruption due to fears of possible aviation safety risk, a problem that the FCC spent years investigating before finally opening up the C-Band for 5G use in a 2020 order.

In addition to their own proposed changes, wireless operators should be required to do more – such as further reduce 5G power levels and ensure that antennas point below the horizon, an aviation industry coalition said in a letter to the FCC this month.

5G in other countries

Technology experts say that while 5G antennas could theoretically lead to interference around airports, the potential for interference is an ever-present feature of all wireless communications – not just 5G – and so far regulators around the world have done a good job of dealing with it. . .

“It is worth noting that around 40 other countries have approved the use of 5G in C-Band,” wrote Harold Feld, a telecom expert at the consumer group Public Knowledge, in a blog post in November on the case.
The FAA issues flight restrictions related to 5G technology, warns of possible flight diversion

“Japan in particular today operates 5G networks much closer to the altimeter band than the 220 MHz separation adopted by the FCC. So far, there are no reliable reports of any harmful interference with altimeters,” Feld wrote. “It is possible for the FCC to make a mistake on this, of course,” Feld added. “But regulators in 40 different countries? And without incidents where the operation has already started?”

According to aviation industry, countries such as Japan and South Korea operate 5G at a fraction of the power levels allowed in the United States, while Canada has a temporary rule requiring antennas to be tilted down, and in Europe the guard band is 100 megahertz wider than in the United States.

However, according to the wireless sector, countries such as Japan only impose power restrictions on frequencies the United States does not even plan to use for 5G. And until 2023, when 5G is more fully rolled out in the C-band, there will actually be much more “blank” spectrum than just the watch band that separates mobile traffic from altimeter operations – as much as 400 MHz in total, according to the FCC’s 2020 order. It can give everyone involved more time to assess any real risks and adapt.

Should you worry?

So who is right, and do air travelers have anything to fear?

In his experience, Feld wrote, FCC engineers who make spectrum decisions are “extremely aware that if they rotate, people can die” – as he said reveals how the FAA publicly contradicts the FCC is less about a realistic public safety hazard than a type of bureaucratic power struggle that has become increasingly common throughout the federal government. (For its part, the transport department has expressed reservations about the 5G development for over a year.)

The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.

The FAA is not the only agency that has issued serious warnings about potential interference from changes in how the United States uses its wireless radio waves. In 2019, the Pentagon said that opening another frequency range for 5G use – a set of airwaves known as the L-Band – could disrupt military GPS systems. And in another high-profile battle, the FCC has been at odds with NASA and NOAA over the impact 5G could have on weather satellites.

In a statement earlier this month, the FAA said it was continuing to work with the FCC and telecom operators to find a solution. Since the wireless operators have already proposed some changes, and the aviation industry is calling for more, the bargaining seems to be focused on how far the telecommunications companies will eventually have to go. The negotiations also reflect the aviation sector’s approach to risk in what is inherently a life or death business and where small margins of error are not tolerated.

A person familiar with the negotiations told CNN Business that the FCC, the FAA and all industry participants have a work plan to limit the impact of the FAA’s flight restrictions. After the FAA outlines the specific airports that will be subject to the restrictions – again, based on infrastructure data provided by wireless operators – the FAA will encourage altimeter manufacturers to test their equipment against the new operating conditions proposed by the telecom industry. Altimeters that turn out to be unaffected will then be considered safe to use, which makes it possible to avoid some of the dreaded flight delays and diversions.

“Right now there is a constant exchange of information between the federal agencies and industry stakeholders on both sides,” the person said. “Meet at all levels, every day. There is a plan in place and everyone agrees on what that plan is and executes on it.”

On Wednesday afternoon, officials in the telecom and aviation industry issued a joint statement on the same effect.

“We are pleased that, after productive discussions, we will work together to share available data from all parties to identify the specific areas of aviation concern,” the statement said. “The best technical experts from both industries will work together to find a way forward, in coordination with the FAA and the FCC.”

The FAA said in a statement that it “encourages avionics manufacturers and wireless companies to take steps to test how dozens of radio altimeters will perform in the powerful 5G environment intended for the United States.”

Ernesto Falcon, a telecommunications expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said air travelers do not have to worry about 5G interference if the FCC has cleared up the case because the agency has a proven track record of preventing harmful interference.

Since there is only so much of the radio spectrum to go around, Falcon added, and because the demand for these ethers is at a record high level, anytime the FCC changes how the scarce resource can be used, provoking a backlash from those who do not leave. benefit from the new system.

“Someone has to call balls and turn on whether these objections are legitimate or self-serving,” Falcon said, and in the United States it is officially the FCC’s job.

As if to emphasize the point, and in an unusual demonstration of power, six former FCC leaders, a group that includes both Democrats and Republicans, wrote a joint letter this month lamenting that the intergovernmental battle over 5G and aviation has unfolded in ways that risks damaging the credibility of the US government.

“This debate should not be fought in public in a way that undermines consumer confidence in the process,” the former chairmen wrote. “The FAA position threatens to derail the reasoned conclusions the FCC has reached after years of technical analysis and study.”

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