Will 5G Impact Your Next Flight?

by Hieu Nguyen

This story has been updated (below)

For the past month, the nation’s biggest phone carriers, Verizon and AT&T, have been delaying the  launch of their C-Band 5G service. 

The Federal Aviation Administration has raised concerns about sensitive aircraft electronics like radio  altimeters that may interrupt the flight when this 5G band rolls out. “We ask that your companies  continue to pause introducing commercial C-Band service for an additional short period of no more than  two weeks beyond the currently scheduled deployment date of January 5,” from the DOT and FAA letter  to AT&T and Verizon issued on December 31st, 2021. 

These carriers had planned to do this in December. However, after the FAA’s last-minute warning  concerning expanding this new band wave may interfere with the systems on an aircraft, the  telecoms companies refused. 

According to Bloomberg and Reuters, the two CEOs issued a joint letter stating that both carriers will  continue the deployment on January 5th, but have agreed to “adopt the same … exclusion zones that are  already in use in France” the letter says. 

Furthermore, the two CEO’s have said: 

“Now, on the evening of New Year’s Eve, just five days before the C-Band spectrum will be deployed, we  received your letter asking us to take still more voluntary steps – to the detriment of our millions of  consumer, business and government customers – to once again assist the aviation industry and the FAA  after failing to resolve issues in that costly 30-day delay period, which we never considered to be an  initial one.”

“At its core, your proposed framework asks that we agree to transfer oversight of our companies’ multi billion dollar investment in 50 unnamed metropolitan areas representing the lion’s share of the U.S.  population to the FAA for an undetermined number of months or years. Even worse, the proposal is  directed to only two companies, regardless of the terms of licenses auctioned and granted, and to the  exception of every other company and industry within the purview of the FCC.” 

“…we will again volunteer, in the spirit of cooperation and good faith, to alter our use of the C-Band  spectrum during the same six-month period (unless we and the FAA determine that these voluntary  limits should be relaxed sooner). Specifically, for six months, until July 5, 2022, we will adopt the same C Band radio exclusion zones that are already in use in France, with slight adaptation to reflect the modest  technical differences in how C-band is being deployed in the two countries. That approach – which is  one of the most conservative in the world – would include extensive exclusion zones around the  runways at certain airports. The effect would be to further reduce C-band signal levels by at least 10  times on the runway or during the last mile of final approach and the first mile after takeoff.” 

The issue is that guided landing systems for aircraft may be “limited due to concerns that the 5G signal  could interfere with the accuracy of an airplane’s radio altimeter, without other mitigations in place,”  according to the FAA. While C-band 5G and these radio altimeters do not operate in the same band, the  bands are close enough to cause concern. 

According to Reuters, the trade group Airlines for America, which includes American Airlines, JetBlue, Delta, FedEx, and UPS, has threatened to go to court on Monday if the FCC does not act on the 5G  rollout. 

So far, the FAA’s response to the reply is that “We are reviewing the latest letter from the wireless  companies on how to mitigate interference from 5G C-Band transmission. U.S. aviation safety standards  will guide our next actions.” 

Update at 09:34 am CST on January 4th, 2021: According to multiple news outlets, AT&T and Verizon  reversed course on Monday night, announcing that they will agree to a two-week delay in their 5G  rollouts on C-Band frequencies. 

“At the request of Secretary [of Transportation Pete] Buttigieg, we have  voluntarily agreed to a two-week delay in the deployment of C-Band 5G services,” an AT&T  spokesperson told CNN. “We also remain committed to the six-month mitigation measures outlined in  our letter. We know that aviation safety and 5G can coexist, and we are confident that additional  collaboration and technical assessment will alleviate any concerns.” 

In a statement, the FAA thanked the wireless carriers. 

“Safety is the core of our mission and this guides all of our decisions,” the agency said. “We look forward  to using the additional time and space to reduce flight disruptions associated with this 5G deployment.” Verizon also confirmed to news organizations that it agreed to the delay, despite both carriers rejecting  Buttigieg’s and the FAA’s request on January 3rd.

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