A political battle over 5G could fundamentally alter air travel: Here’s what you need to know

From mandatory masks to waived change fees, the pandemic has altered the experience of flying dramatically. However, beginning early next year, additional changes to air travel are possible — changes that have nothing to do with the coronavirus.

According to aviation industry estimates, these changes could result in flight delays or diversions affecting tens of millions of passengers on hundreds of thousands of flights.

It all comes down to a political battle over 5G, the next-generation wireless technology that has begun to appear in the latest smartphones. What you need to know is as follows:

The source of concern

Transportation regulators are concerned that a 5G variant scheduled to be activated in January will interfere with certain airplane instruments, and many aviation industry groups share those concerns — despite assurances from federal telecom regulators and wireless carriers.

The Federal Aviation Administration is concerned that 5G cellular antennas near some airports — not air travelers’ mobile devices — could skew readings from certain aircraft equipment used to inform pilots of their altitude above the ground. These systems, dubbed radar altimeters, are used continuously during a flight and are therefore considered critical equipment. (Radar altimeters are distinct from standard altimeters, which use air pressure readings to determine altitude rather than radio signals.)

The agency is so concerned that it issued an emergency order this month prohibiting pilots from using potentially affected altimeters near airports where low visibility would otherwise necessitate their use. This new rule could prevent planes from landing at certain airports in certain circumstances, as pilots would be unable to land solely on the basis of instruments.

It is unclear which airports may be affected by this rule. When it issued the order, the FAA stated that specific airports would be specified later after it received additional information from wireless carriers about potential locations for 5G infrastructure.

The time is ticking away. On Jan. 5, wireless carriers are expected to activate 5G service using the radio frequencies about which the FAA is concerned.

The Federal Communications Commission’s service map indicates that large swaths of California, Florida, New England, Texas, and the midwest will gain 5G coverage. However, aviation groups warn that the proposal could jeopardize some of the country’s busiest airports, including those in Los Angeles, New York, and Houston.

The operation of 5G signals

5G signals will be transmitted over radio frequencies collectively referred to as the C-Band. This band of airwaves is attractive to wireless carriers due to its favorable balance of cellular range and capacity — two critical characteristics of any wireless network. (While other bands of airwaves are also used to carry 5G, the current debate focuses exclusively on the C-Band frequencies.)

On the radio frequency spectrum used for wireless communications, the C-Band is adjacent to the band used by aircraft altimeters. Almost: To protect against interference, the two are intentionally separated by a so-called guard band — essentially “blank” airwaves.

To further mitigate any aircraft risks, Verizon and AT&T — which owns WarnerMedia, the parent company of CNN — offered in November to limit the power of their 5G antennas and take other precautions. Separately, the companies agreed to delay the launch of 5G from December 5, 2021 to January 5, 2022.

However, that has not satisfied the FAA, whose 11th-hour order would have “an enormous negative impact on the aviation industry,” according to a letter sent Monday to the Department of Transportation by the CEOs of Boeing and Airbus. “We concur that 5G interference could impair aircraft’s ability to operate safely,” the CEOs added.

According to the letter, the FAA restrictions will disrupt 345,000 passenger flights, 32 million passenger flights, and 5,400 cargo flights, according to an estimate published by the industry group Airlines for America. According to the FAA’s own estimate, the plan could affect 6,800 US airplanes and 1,800 helicopters.

That’s a lot of disruption caused by a perceived risk to air safety, an issue the FCC spent years researching before finally opening the C-Band to 5G use in a 2020 order.

Along with their own proposed changes, wireless carriers should be required to take additional steps, such as further reducing 5G power levels and ensuring that antennas are pointed below the horizon, an aviation industry coalition wrote to the FCC earlier this month.

5G deployments in other countries

While 5G antennas could theoretically cause interference near airports, technology experts assert that the possibility of interference is an inherent feature of all wireless communications — not just 5G — and that regulators worldwide have thus far done an admirable job of managing it.

“It’s worth noting that approximately 40 additional countries have approved the use of 5G in the C-Band,” Harold Feld, a telecom expert at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, wrote in a November blog post on the subject.

“Japan, in particular, operates 5G networks much closer to the altimeter band than the FCC-mandated 220 MHz separation. There have been no credible reports of harmful interference with air altimeters to date “Feld stated. “Certainly, the FCC could make an error on this,” Feld added. “However, regulators in 40 distinct countries? And there have been no incidents in which the operation has already begun?”

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

According to the wireless industry, countries such as Japan impose power restrictions on frequencies that the US does not intend to use for 5G. And, until 2023, when 5G is fully deployed in the C-Band, there will be significantly more “blank” spectrum available than just the guard band separating cellular traffic from altimeter operations — up to 400 MHz in total, according to the FCC’s 2020 order. This may give everyone involved additional time to assess and adapt to any real-world risks.

Should you be concerned?

So who is correct, and are air travelers in danger?

According to Feld, FCC engineers who make spectrum decisions are “extremely aware that if they make a mistake, people will die” — which he believes demonstrates how the FAA publicly contradicting the FCC is less about a genuine threat to public safety and more about a type of bureaucratic power struggle that has become increasingly common across the federal government. (The Transportation Department, for its part, has expressed reservations about the 5G rollout for more than a year.)

The Federal Communications Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.

The FAA is not the only agency to issue dire warnings about the dangers of interference caused by changes in how the United States uses its wireless airwaves. The Pentagon stated in 2019 that opening a new range of frequencies for 5G use — dubbed the L-Band — could cause interference with military GPS systems. Additionally, the FCC has been at odds with NASA and NOAA over the potential impact of 5G on weather satellites.

The FAA stated earlier this month that it was continuing to work with the Federal Communications Commission and telecom carriers to find a solution. Given that the wireless carriers have already proposed some changes and the aviation industry has requested additional ones, the haggling appears to be focused on how far the telecom companies must ultimately go. The negotiations also reflect the aviation industry’s risk tolerance in what is inherently a life-or-death business with no room for error.

According to a source familiar with the negotiations, the FCC, the FAA, and all industry participants have devised a strategy for mitigating the impact of the FAA’s aircraft restrictions. After the FAA identifies the specific airports that will be affected — again, based on infrastructure data provided by wireless carriers — the FAA will contact altimeter manufacturers to test their equipment against the new operating conditions proposed by the telecom industry. Altimeters that are determined to be unaffected would then be considered safe to use, allowing for the avoidance of some of the anticipated flight delays and diversions.

“At the moment, there is an ongoing, continuous exchange of information between federal agencies and industry stakeholders on both sides,” the person explained. “Every day, meetings at all levels. There is a strategy in place, and everyone is on board with it and carrying it out.”

On Wednesday afternoon, officials from the telecom and aviation industries issued a joint statement to that effect.

“We are pleased that, following productive discussions, we will collaborate to share available data from all parties in order to identify aviation’s specific areas of concern,” the statement stated. “In collaboration with the FAA and FCC, the best technical experts from both industries will collaborate to identify a path forward.”

The FAA later stated that it is “encouraged that avionics manufacturers and wireless companies are taking steps to evaluate the performance of dozens of radio altimeters in the high-powered 5G environment envisioned for the United States.”

According to Ernesto Falcon, a telecom expert with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization, air travelers should not be concerned about 5G interference if the FCC has cleared the matter, as the agency has a track record of preventing harmful interference.

Because there is a finite amount of radio spectrum available and demand for those airwaves is at an all-time high, Falcon added, whenever the FCC modifies how that scarce resource can be used, it tends to elicit a backlash from those who do not benefit from the new system.

“Someone has to call balls and strikes on whether those objections are legitimate or self-serving,” Falcon explained, and in the United States, that is officially the responsibility of the Federal Communications Commission.

As if to emphasize the point, and in an unusual show of force, six former FCC chairs wrote a joint letter this month lamenting how the interagency fight over 5G and aviation has unfolded in ways that risk undermining the US government’s credibility.

“This debate should not be waged in public in a manner that undermines consumer confidence in the process,” the former chairs wrote. “The FAA position risks derailment of the FCC’s reasoned conclusions reached after years of technical analysis and study.”

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