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Why fear of 5G halting flights has faded

Published:Monday | January 24, 2022 | 12:12 AM

The roll-out of new 5G wireless service in the United States failed to have the much-dreaded result of crippling air travel, although it began in rocky fashion, with international airlines cancelling some flights to the US and spotty problems showing up on domestic flights.

Airline industry officials say the decision by AT&T and Verizon – under pressure from the White House – to delay activating 5G towers near many airports has defused the situation.

The delay is giving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) more time to clear more planes to operate freely around 5G networks.

WHAT’S THE CONCERN ALL ABOUT?

Cell-phone companies have been rolling out next-generation 5G service for a few years, and this latest slice of it, the so-called C-Band, helps make AT&T and Verizon more competitive with T-Mobile. It promises faster and more stable wireless networks.

But 5G is still mostly promise and less actual applications. For now, it lets you download a movie much faster. But the telecommunications industry is touting it as critical for autonomous vehicles, modern manufacturing, smart cities, telehealth and other fields that would rely on a universe of internet-connected devices.

The concern comes from the fact that this latest bit of 5G operates on part of the radio spectrum that is close to the range used by aircraft instruments called radio altimeters, which measure how high aircraft are above the ground.

The issue was highlighted in a 2020 report by RTCA, an aviation research group, prompting pilots and airlines to sound alarms about possible radio interference that could jeopardize safety. The telecom industry, led by trade group CTIA, disputes the 2020 report and says 5G poses no risk to aviation.

WHY DID AIRLINES CANCEL SOME FLIGHTS LAST WEEK?

International airlines cancelled some flights that were scheduled to operate just as the new networks went live. They feared not being able to land at their destinations under 5G-related restrictions imposed by the FAA. Airlines scrapped more than 350 flights on Wednesday, or about two per cent of those scheduled, according to FlightAware.

IS THE PROBLEM SOLVED?

No, although the FAA says it is making progress by determining that more altimeters are adequately protected against interference from 5G C-Band signals. Planes with certain altimeters might never be approved, which means the operators would likely have to install new equipment to land at all airports.

IS THIS A PROBLEM ONLY IN THE US?

For the most part, yes. The FAA says there are several reasons why the 5G C-Band roll-out has been more of a challenge for airlines in the US than in other countries: Cellular towers use a more powerful signal strength than those elsewhere; the 5G network operates on a frequency closer to the one many altimeters use, and cell tower antennae point up at a higher angle. CTIA disputes the FAA’s claims.

In France, 5G networks near airports must operate at reduced power to lower the risk of interference with planes.