Rollout of 5G in US POSTPONED hours before switch-on over fears it could interfere with aeroplanes

Date:


What are US airlines worried about and could British planes be affected?

The debate about whether 5G has the potential to interfere with crucial aeroplane instruments is intense and unresolved. 

What are the airlines worried about?

Airlines are concerned that the new 5G network could affect aircraft instruments including altimeters, which measure a plane’s distance from the ground. 

This is because both the new 5G network and the altimeters will operate at a similar wavelength. 

What are the networks saying?

AT&T and Verizon say there is no evidence their new network will interfere with aircraft operating systems. They have previously delayed the rollout to allow for more research to take place. 

 What is the view in the UK and Europe?

5G is not seen as a problem for aircraft in Britain or Europe, according to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Ofcom and EU Aviation Safety Authority.

All three insist there is no evidence 5G interferes with aircraft systems. 5G in Europe is on a different wavelength, which is seen as less likely to affect planes than the one used in America. 

American mobile phone firms are switching on around 90% of their new 5G network despite fears the masts are dangerous to planes, causing dozens of flights to be cancelled by spooked airlines. 

The CEOs of major US carriers earlier warned of an impending ‘catastrophic’ crisis if AT&T and Verizon were to finally deploy their new 5G services from the early hours, with hundreds of flights potentially called off. 

In a bid to allay fears, masts near key airports will  remain off today, around 10% of the total network. President Biden vowed to work to find a solution.

Emirates, Japan Airlines, Air India and All Nippon were among the airlines who cancelled some of their Boeing 777 flights to the US. 

The new technology is launching around the US on Wednesday – a deadline that has been in the making for two years. To launch, AT&T and Verizon towers that emit the signals necessary to power it were due to be switched on. 

However, there are some 500 towers that the FAA says are too close to 88 airports and could make it unsafe for planes to fly. 

The fear among airlines, aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration was that the new 5G network could interfere with vital aircraft instruments that are on a similar wavelength. 

This includes altimeters, which tell pilots their altitude as they fly in low visibility. Any false readings could confuse them as they approach the runway in poor visibility conditions, with potentially disastrous results.

The White House is now helping broker an agreement between the two industries. At a briefing on Tuesday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the White House ‘understands what is at stake for both industries’, a statement said. 

A deal is being worked on negotiated now to allow 90 percent of the towers – 4,500 – to be turned on, holding back the 500 of concern. It’s unclear how long the FAA and airlines now have to resolve their safety concerns. 

AT&T is now demanding to know why the FAA – a government body – waited so long before sounding such alarm. 

‘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.’  

This issue is not seen as a problem in Britain or Europe, with the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, Ofcom and EU Aviation Safety Authority all insisting there is no evidence 5G is a problem.

In Europe, 5G networks run on a different frequency to the US, which is seen as less likely to affect altimeters than the one used across the pond. 

An aviation expert who did not want to be named told MailOnline: ‘Most of Europe and the rest of the world have 3.2-3.8GHz usage in the 5G spectrum.

‘But the US within the spectrum goes up to 3.9GHz to 4.1-4.2GHz. 

‘Altimeters on planes are in the 4.4GHz range, so there’s more chance of potential interference with the 5G spectrum in the US.’ 

The fear among airlines, aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration is that the new 5G network could interfere with vital aircraft instruments that are on a similar wavelength, such as altimeters

The fear among airlines, aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration is that the new 5G network could interfere with vital aircraft instruments that are on a similar wavelength, such as altimeters

The CEOs of some of America's largest airlines wrote to federal officials on Monday warning about the potential negative effects of 5G

The CEOs of some of America’s largest airlines wrote to federal officials on Monday warning about the potential negative effects of 5G

The evolution of mobile broadband up to 5G

The evolution of the G system started in 1980 with the invention of the mobile phone which allowed for analogue data to be transmitted via phone calls.   

Digital came into play in 1991 with 2G and SMS and MMS capabilities were launched. 

Since then, the capabilities and carrying capacity for the mobile network has increased massively. 

More data can be transferred from one point to another via the mobile network quicker than ever.

5G is expected to be 100 times faster than the currently used 4G. 

Whilst the jump from 3G to 4G was most beneficial for mobile browsing and working, the step to 5G will be so fast they become almost real-time. 

That means mobile operations will be just as fast as office-based internet connections.

Potential uses for 5g include: 

  • Simultaneous translation of several languages in a party conference call 
  • Self-driving cars can stream movies, music and navigation information from the cloud
  • A full length 8GB film can be downloaded in six seconds. 

5G is expected to be so quick and efficient it is possible it could start the end of wired connections.  

By the end of 2020, industry estimates claim 50 billion devices will be connected to 5G.

Travel expert Paul Charles said: ‘There’s no evidence of any problems in other countries including the UK of 5G interfering with aircraft safety systems, so I think it’s a case of American airlines needing more education before 5G can be rolled out

‘But from a passenger point of view, the advice is to plan your trip as normal and check for any cancellations.’

UK carriers including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have not said if they expected their services to be affected. 

Today British authorities all played down the issue, with a spokesman for the CAA saying: ‘We are aware of reports that suggest that the frequency band being used for 5G in a number of countries could potentially pose a risk of interference with aircraft radio altimeters.

‘There have been no reported incidents of aircraft systems being affected by 5G transmissions in UK airspace, but we are nonetheless working with Ofcom and the Ministry of Defence to make sure that the deployment of 5G in the UK does not cause any technical problems for aircraft.’

Ofcom said: ‘We’re aware that the aviation sector is looking at this; we’ve done our own technical analysis and are yet to see any evidence that would give us cause for concern.’

Gareth Elliott, Head of Policy and Communications at Mobile UK, said the networks were ‘coordinating with the aviation authorities’ to ensure there was ‘no interference in the UK’. 

The US airline CEOs claimed in their letter that interference to aeroplanes’ altimeters could result in ‘more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays.’

Other planes could be grounded permanently because the altimeter provides signals to their mandated safety features. 

Action is urgent, they added in the letter, writing: ‘To be blunt, the nation´s commerce will grind to a halt.’ 

It was signed by the chief executives of American Airlines, JetBlue Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, as well as officials from FedEx Express and UPS Airlines. 

Verizon and AT&T have since agreed to push back the launch of their new service from January 4, and it was set to debut on Wednesday.

However, the airline CEOs warned federal officials on Monday, a significant number of widebody aircrafts would become unusable and  ‘could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas.’

‘Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,’ the CEOs wrote.

‘The harm that will result from deployment on January 19 is substantially worse than we anticipated for two key reasons,’ they explained.

Modern planes, like the one seen here, contain altimeters, which measures altitude and allows pilots to fly when visibility is limited

Modern planes, like the one seen here, contain altimeters, which measures altitude and allows pilots to fly when visibility is limited 

US airlines claim 5G can render radar altimeters unreliable. Pictured is a Verizon 5G tower going up in Utah

US airlines claim 5G can render radar altimeters unreliable. Pictured is a Verizon 5G tower going up in Utah 

The list of 50 airports with 5G buffers 

AUSTIN-BERGSTROM INTL 

LAURENCE G HANSCOM FLD 

BOEING FLD/KING COUNTY INTL 

BIRMINGHAM-SHUTTLESWORTH INTL 

NASHVILLE INTL

BOB HOPE

AKRON-CANTON

CHARLOTTE/DOUGLAS INTL

DALLAS LOVE FLD

DALLAS-FORT WORTH INTL 

DETROIT METRO WAYNE COUNTY

ELLINGTON EWR NEWARK LIBERTY INTL 

FRESNO YOSEMITE INTL 

FORT LAUDERDALE/HOLLYWOOD INTL 

FLINT MICHIGAN 

WILLIAM P HOBBY 

 NEW HAVEN

GEORGE BUSH INTCNTL/HOUSTON

INDIANAPOLIS INTL

LONG ISLAND MAC ARTHUR

JOHN F KENNEDY INTL 

HARRY REID INTL 

LOS ANGELES INTL 

LAGUARDIA

LONG BEACH (DAUGHERTY FLD) 

 KANSAS CITY INTL 

 ORLANDO INTL 

 HARRISBURG INTL 

CHICAGO MIDWAY INTL 

 MCALLEN INTL 

MIAMI INTL 

 MINNEAPOLIS-ST PAUL INTL/WOLD-CHAMBERLAIN 

 ONTARIO INTL

CHICAGO O’HARE INTL 

 SNOHOMISH COUNTY (PAINE FLD) 

PALM BEACH INTL 

 PHILADELPHIA INTL 

 PHOENIX SKY HARBOR INTL 

ST PETE-CLEARWATER INTL 

 PITTSBURGH INTL 

RALEIGH-DURHAM INTL 

 FREDERICK DOUGLASS/GREATER ROCHESTER INTL 

SEATTLE-TACOMA INTL 

 SAN FRANCISCO INTL 

NORMAN Y MINETA SAN JOSE INTL

JOHN WAYNE/ORANGE COUNTY 

ST LOUIS LAMBERT INTL 

 SYRACUSE HANCOCK INTL 

TETERBORO 

 

For one, they said, even though the FAA announced it had cleared for use two radar altimeters used in some Boeing and Airbus jets so they could perform low-visibility landings at many airports where 5G C-band will be deployed, the list did not include many large airports.

Additionally, they argued, because radio altimeters provide critical information to other safety and navigation systems in modern aeroplanes, multiple modern safety systems ‘will be deemed unusable.’

‘Aeroplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded.’ 

‘The ripple effects across both passenger and cargo operations, our workforce and the broader economy are simply incalculable,’ the CEOs wrote as they asked officials ‘that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles of airport runways’ at some key airports.

‘Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies.’

The carriers added they urge action to ensure ‘5G is deployed except when towers are too close to airport runways until the FAA can determine how that can be safely accomplished without catastrophic disruption.’ 

The letter, which was obtained by DailyMail.com, went to White House National Economic Council director Brian Deese, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

Airlines for America, the group that organized the letter, declined to comment. The government agencies did not immediately comment. 

AT&T and Verizon, which won nearly all of the C-Band spectrum in an $80 billion auction last year, on January 3 agreed to buffer zones around 50 airports to reduce interference risks and take other steps to cut potential interference for six months. 

They also agreed to delay deployment for two weeks until Wednesday, temporarily averting an aviation safety standoff, but the rollout has now been paused again.

The CEOs of major airlines and Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun held a lengthy call with Buttigieg and Dickson on Sunday to warn of the looming crisis, officials told Reuters.

But the issue doesn’t just affect aeroplanes – they could also have a negative effect on the nation’s helicopters, including lifesaving medevac choppers.

Under US law, all commercial helicopters must have a working altimeter in order to fly. Without them, officials warn, landing in remote areas or on hospital landing pads will be near impossible.

Helicopter Association International petitioned the FAA in October asking for medevacs to be exempt from the law when 5G rolls out, and the FAA granted it last week for areas where 5G C-Band interference could affect the radio altimeter. 

Why radio frequencies are the key to understanding how 5G can affect aircraft  

AT&T and Verizon have spent tens of billions of dollars to license the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz frequency range for the new high-speed C-Band 5G service. 

The C-band is a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum in the microwave range of frequencies ranging from 4.0 to 8.0 gigahertz (GHz), although the US Federal Communications Commission has designated 3.7-4.2 GHz as C band too. 

The problem is that wireless spectrum used by 5G networks could interfere with radio altimeters, which measure a plane’s altitude – especially important for low-visibility operations. 

Airlines fear that C-band 5G signals will disrupt planes’ navigation systems, particularly those used in bad weather. 

This interference with radio altimeters, which measure a plane’s altitude, could lead to the loss of radar altitude information or, worse, incorrect radar altitude information unknowingly being generated, they say. 

It is not seen as a problem in Britain or Europe, according to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, Ofcom and EU Aviation Safety Authority.

All three insist there is no evidence 5G interferes with aircraft systems.

However, in Europe 5G networks work in the 3.4-3.8GHz spectrum so regulators on this side of the Atlantic don’t appear as concerned about it being close to the 4.2-4.4GHz band for radio altimeters.  

It seems the basis for US airlines’ fears is that mobile networks’ traffic from the top edge of 3.98GHz, which can even creep up to 4.1GHz, might bleed into the neighbouring altimeter band.  

The higher the frequency in the spectrum, the faster the service. 

‘The issue is that the C-band frequency used for 5G in the US is a little bit close to the frequencies used by altimeters,’ Roslyn Layton, vice president at Strand Consult, told Tech Monitor. 

The radio altimeter is a critical aviation safety technology that indicates the airplane’s height and supports safe landing.

It operates in the 4.2-4.4 GHz spectrum band; cell phones are currently not permitted to operate in that band or any nearby band to prevent interference. 

However, if telecommunication authorities reallocate the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for 5G, the risk of interference could increase. 

The airlines want 5G signals to be excluded from ‘the approximate two miles of airport runways at affected airports as defined by the FAA on 19 January 2022’. 

This would ensure that no airplanes are affected by the 5G interference, they say. 

There have been fatal accidents associated with incorrect radar altitude, most recently Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 in Amsterdam in 2009. 

The FAA has warned that potential interference could affect sensitive airplane instruments such as altimeters and make an impact on low-visibility operations. 

So this threat could compromise key safety systems and result in suspended passenger and cargo flights. 

For passengers, flights may be cancelled or have to be diverted to other airports if 5G towers are deployed too close to airport runways.  

But most aviation regulators are content the risks posed by 5G to planes are low, according to Layton. 

‘This whole thing is unhelpful for the world’s airport regulators,’ she said. ‘They have blessed this technology years ago, so what does it look like when the FAA all of sudden says “there’s a problem”? It’s really inconvenient and a bit embarrassing.’

AT&T and Verizon have agreed to buffer zones around 50 airports to reduce interference risks. 

In the UK, Ofcom said the country had had 5G deployments and other services in the bands near to radio altimeters for years and there have been no known cases of interference. 

Similarly, other countries are already using these frequencies for 5G and other wireless services with no reported incidents of interference to aviation equipment. 

The issue in the US is that it’s about to deploy these services, so there’s concerns of the effects deployment may have.  

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