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In recent months, chaos has erupted between telecom giants Verizon and AT&T and the U.S. aviation industry over the safety implications of their latest 5G technology.
The aerospace industry and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are concerned that C-Band 5G — which relies on radio waves at 3.7 to 3.98 GHz — could interfere with flight safety technology such as radio altimeters that use a 4.2 to 4.4 GHz range.
“[R]adio altimeters cannot be relied upon to perform their intended function if they experience interference from wireless broadband operations,” the FAA said, adding it would require “limitations prohibiting certain operations requiring radio altimeter data when in the presence of 5G C-Band interference.”
“If bad weather means pilots can’t see a runway near those cell sites after AT&T and Verizon light up C-Band frequencies Jan. 5, expect them to land elsewhere. Or not take off at all,” USA Today explained.
“You’ll be forced to divert the flight to an airport that is not 5G-covered,” said Robert Mann, president of the aviation-industry consulting firm R.W. Mann. & Co. “Or you’ll have to not dispatch the plane.”
In October 2020, Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) released a report that provided clear indication “that the risk will be widespread and has the potential for broad impacts to aviation operations in the United States, including the possibility of catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of appropriate mitigations.”
What is the aerospace industry saying?
Boeing and Airbus Americas
Both Dave Calhoun, Chief Executive of Boeing, and Jeffrey Knittel, the CEO of Airbus Americas, have urged the Biden administration to delay the rollout of 5G.
In a statement, Boeing said the aerospace industry was “focused on fully evaluating and addressing the potential for 5G interference with radio altimeters,” according to NPR.
“We are collaborating with aviation authorities, government leaders, airlines, and industry groups to ensure the continued operational safety of aircraft throughout the aviation system worldwide,” it said.
“5G interference could adversely affect the ability of aircraft to safely operate,” Calhoun and Knittel asked U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a letter, adding it could have “an enormous negative impact on the aviation industry.”
“If there’s any kind of weather, if there’s high winds, if the visibility isn’t good because of smog, you can’t use that equipment,” United Airlines Chief Executive Scott Kirby said. “You can’t land at airports — at Chicago O’Hare, at Atlanta, at Detroit — just think about what that means. This cannot be the outcome.”
Airlines for America
“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” wrote the chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and others in a letter to U.S. aviation authorities.
The airline leaders then explained that “[t]he harm that will result from deployment on January 19 is substantially worse than we originally anticipated for two key reasons.”
Trilogy of delays
In response to concerns over safety, Verizon and AT&T have delayed the rollout of 5G on three occasions.
On November 4, 2021, Verizon and AT&T agreed to “delay by a month the commercial launch of C-band wireless service pending an assessment of any impact on aviation safety technologies,” with the launch pushed to January 5, 2022.
On January 4, 2022, shortly after refusing a last-minute federal request, AT&T and Verizon agreed to postpone the rollout of 5G technology near airports by two weeks.
And on January 18, 2022, in another eleventh-hour move, Verizon and AT&T agreed to temporarily limit some 5G services in the vicinity of key airports.
“Due to operational concerns associated with the planned deployment of 5G mobile network services in the US at certain airports, Emirates will be suspending flights to the following US destinations from 19 January 2022 until further notice: Boston (BOS), Chicago (ORD), Dallas Fort Worth (DFW), Houston (IAH), Miami (MIA), Newark (EWR), Orlando (MCO), San Francisco (SFO) and Seattle (SEA),” the company said in a statement.
“Boeing has notified us that 5G signals for U.S. mobile phones, which will begin operating in the U.S. on January 19, 2022, may interfere with the radio wave altimeter installed on the Boeing 777,” the airline announced. “We have decided not to use this aircraft-type on the U.S. mainland routes until safety is confirmed, and we regret to cancel the flight that cannot be changed to Boeing 787.”
“With the launch of 5G service in the U.S. on Wednesday, January 19, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has indicated that radio waves from the 5G wireless service may interfere with aircraft altimeters,” the airline announced. “As a result, Boeing has announced flight restrictions on all airlines operating the Boeing 777 aircraft, and we have canceled or changed the aircraft for some flights to/from the U.S. based on the announcement by Boeing.”
“Due to deployment of 5G communications in USA, our operations to USA from India stand curtailed/revised with change in aircraft type from 19th January 2022,” the airline announced.
What has the Biden administration said?
On December 31, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote to the heads of Verizon and AT&T, offering a “near-term solution for advancing the co-existence of 5G deployment in the C-Band and safe flight operations,” which was rejected by the heads of the telecom giants.
“The United States has the safest aviation system in the world. We achieve this every day by actively identifying risks and eliminating them. Passengers have confidence that when they board one of the daily 45,000 commercial flights they will safely reach their destination,” Buttigieg wrote. “We are an aviation nation because flying is safe. Our safe aviation systems and thriving aviation industry are profoundly important to America’s economy and our way of life. We know you share the desire to keep aviation safe and efficient, and we urge you to seriously consider this solution as a common-sense way forward.”
On January 18, 2022, President Joe Biden thanked the telecom giants for agreeing to delay the deployment for a third time.
“I want to thank Verizon and AT&T for agreeing to delay 5G deployment around key airports and to continue working with the Department of Transportation on safe 5G deployment at this limited set of locations,” Biden said in a statement. “This agreement will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled. This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans. Expanding 5G and promoting competition in internet service are critical priorities of mine, and tomorrow will be a massive step in the right direction.”
Does this problem exist elsewhere?
The main difference between the U.S. and other countries regarding 5G technology is the frequencies used by networks. In the European Union, for example, networks use lower frequencies than U.S. providers, thereby reducing the risk of interference. In France, however, “buffer zones” have been imposed around airports and antennas have been tilted downwards.
In the United Kingdom, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said that “there have been no confirmed instances where 5G interference has resulted in aircraft system malfunction or unexpected behavior.”
The CAA also noted that “different national mobile telecommunication strategies may mean that some [countries] have a higher threat exposure than others”.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.