The launch of a new 5G mobile phone service in the United States on Wednesday has sparked a battle between telcos and the airline industry, with airlines arguing that the high-speed wireless service has can interfere with aircraft technology and can cause “catastrophic” interruptions.
The dispute forces Verizon and AT&T to temporarily restrict 5G service around certain airports, and Airlines scrambled on Wednesday to cancel or change flights. But what is the root of the problem? Does 5G service really interfere with airplanes? And what does all of this mean for the future of 5G networks in the US?
What is the problem?
Verizon and AT&T set to deploying 5G wireless services, which boosts your connection, higher bandwidth, and super-fast internet speeds. A substantial portion of fifth-generation wireless technology, or 5G, operates in a specific frequency band that makes up what is known as the C-band segment of the radio spectrum. The problem is that this part of the spectrum is near the segment of radio waves reserved for commercial aviation and air traffic.
The Federal Aviation Administration says 5G networks could disrupt aircraft operations. The main concern is that cell towers and antennas near airports could interfere with radio altimeters, which are electronics in planes that help pilots measure their altitude over terrain. This equipment is especially important when the aircraft is landing in bad weather or when the helicopter is operating at low altitude.
“The problem is that wireless signals aren’t 100 percent limited to the spectral bands they’re assigned to,” said Randall Berry, a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University. “The concern here is that the signals from the 5G band could leak into the band used by airlines and confuse these altimeters.”
Verizon and AT&T have said their equipment can be safely deployed without affecting aircraft operations, but in a letter sent Monday to US economic and transportation officials , CEOs of major airlines say the rollout of 5G could ground flights and leave tens of thousands of Americans abroad stranded. .
In response, the telecom giants on Tuesday agreed to temporarily limit C-band 5G service around some airports as they continue to work with the airline industry and the FAA.
Is this really cause for concern?
Berry says it’s possible, but he added that there’s not much reliable evidence that 5G technology poses a high risk to the airline industry.
Both AT&T and Verizon expressed disappointment over the recent holdouts, saying 5G technology has been safely deployed in about 40 other countries without disrupting aircraft operations.
Aija Leiponen, a professor at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business, says there are some differences in how other countries regulate C-band spectrum, but the Federal Communications Commission and similar agencies worldwide have been investigating potential safety issues with 5G technology. .
“We have not seen any air traffic safety incidents related to this, and 5G has been rolled out in other countries much faster than in the United States,” she said.
Concerns about wireless interference in the airline industry are hardly new. The use of cell phones on planes was once banned in the US and many other countries over concerns that cellular signals could conflict with in-flight avionics and other navigation systems. . In 2013, the FAA began allowing mobile devices to be used on board aircraft if they were put in “airplane mode,” which turns off the phone’s ability to transmit radio signals to towers. mobile.
To reduce the possibility of interference, Verizon and AT&T have agreed to maintain buffer zone around at least 50 airports, including major hubs such as New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport. The carriers also agreed to temporarily limit the rollout of 5G services around certain airport runways.
How do we get here?
In the US, the FCC is in charge of regulating how different frequencies in the radio spectrum are used.
Last year, the agency put licenses for C-band spectrum at auction, and Verizon and AT&T are among a number of mobile service providers that have spent $81 billion using it to roll out networks. New 5G.
In November, the FAA issued a notice to aircraft manufacturers and operators, warning that they “should be prepared for the possibility that interference from 5G transmitters and other technology could cause problems.” for certain safety devices.”
Leiponen said 5G networks have been in development for more than a decade, providing ample time to address potential safety issues.
“It’s confusing when we’re at a point where operators are about to push a button to start networks and now the aviation industry is on the fence and wants to prevent this from happening,” she said.
Airline executives and the FAA said they had tried to raise issues about 5G technology before, but those concerns were largely ignored. The reciprocity has pitted the two industries against each other and presents another setback for the airline industry, which is still facing the consequences of widespread flight cancellations due to omicron variation and seasonal storms. recent winter.
What have other countries done?
In some other countries, the rollout of 5G services is much more seamless than the current situation in the US.
In France, for example, regulators have limited the power of 5G antennas and restricted their altitude near airports to reduce the potential for interference.
In Canada, areas around airports are designated as “exclusion zones” with limited 5G service. Nearby antennas are also required to be tilted down and away from the flight path to avoid interfering with the aircraft during landing.
These examples demonstrate that the aviation and telecommunications industries can work together to deploy new technologies safely, Berry said.
“There is good evidence that you can use C-band and radio altimeters,” he said. “The question now is: Do we have the right rules?”
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