As airlines warn of devastating consequences over an expanded 5G network set to rollout soon, their real fear is not over the new wireless technology, but how the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is addressing it.
Airlines Fear FAA Incompetence, Not 5G Technology
We’ve addressed the 5G issue before on Live and Let’s Fly and I would refer you this primer for a background on the technology and why it making headlines today.
After agreeing to a two-week delay, Verizon and AT&T plan to “turn on” 5C C-Band tomorrow, which will bring ultra-fast internet speeds, extra bandwidth, and increased connectivity across the nation. This fifth generation wireless technology will revolutionize the way in which we use our mobile devices and may eventually change the way we use internet at home.
But the FAA remains concerned that the the new 5G technology will cause interference with older altimeters on aircraft, potentially jeopardizing safety. The FAA has even set up a website to address this concern:
Because the proposed 5G deployment involves a new combination of power levels, frequencies, proximity to flight operations, and other factors, the FAA will need to impose restrictions on flight operations using certain types of radar altimeter equipment close to antennas in 5G networks.
These safety restrictions could affect flight schedules and operations, affecting the aviation system. Before and after the 5G deployment begins, the FAA will continue to work every day to reduce effects of this disruption as we make progress to safely integrate 5G and aviation.
While the FAA acknowledges that 5G technology is in use in countries like France and Japan without issue, it distinguishes between approaches and mitigation efforts. For example, the FAA indicates that France has:
- increased buffer zones
- lower power levels
- antennas tilted downward to reduce potential interference to flights
- different placement of antennas relative to airfields
- frequencies with a different proximity to frequencies used by aviation equipment
Such modifications are controlled by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), not the FAA.
Consequently, the FAA will limit the use of altimeters on older aircraft in 5G areas. At the same time, the FAA has approved exceptions for more modern aircraft over the last week and still will not even say whether 5G will cause disturbances at all, instead merely falling back on an “out of abundance of caution” defense.
With potential flight disruptions on the horizon, airlines have urged for the further delay of 5G rollout, particularly around airports. A letter signed by the CEOs of all major U.S. airlines warns:
“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded…
Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies…
To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”
You can read the full letter below:
— davidshepardson (@davidshepardson) January 17, 2022
In its own letter, United Airlines implored the federal government to get its act together:
“We won’t compromise on safety — full stop. But, governments in other countries have successfully designed policies to ensure the safe deployment of 5G technology and we’re simply asking the U.S. government to do the same. We implore the Biden administration to act quickly and apply the same common sense solutions here that have clearly worked so well around the world.”
And that gets to the heart of this issue: airlines fear the FAA, not 5G.
5G is not a new technology. The FAA has had years to test and analyze the new spectrum to prepare for this (delayed) launch. Its feverish work over the last two weeks to certify more modern aircraft altimeters shows a lack of planning and strategic failure.
Why were older altimeters not more vigorously tested in the months leading up to this launch? Why were test sites not set up to probe in real-time the impact, if any, of 5G on aircraft safety equipment?
Thus, we seem to be left with speculatory fear over a hazard which may not even be real due to a government agency that failed to do its job in advance.
Indeed, the FAA must never compromise safety. But this is a problem of the agency’s own making and we should never have reached this point in which airlines are warning “commerce will ground to a halt.” At this point, the FAA can only continue to keep working frantically to perform the assessments that should have taken place months or even years ago. In the meantime, airlines likely have the FAA to fear far more than 5G technology. And it merits mentioning the FCC also shares a high degree of blame for this fiasco.
Update: AT&T and Verizon has have agreed to delay turning on 5G towers near some U.S airports. A statement from AT&T notes:
“We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner.”