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Why are airlines squaring off against wireless companies over 5G?

By: April Carson

The argument is raging over whether the new wireless service's radio spectrum poses a hazard to aircraft and helicopter altimeters.

With the debut of new 5G mobile phone service in the United States on Wednesday, a battle has broken out between telecommunication firms and the aviation sector, with airlines claiming that high-speed wireless technology may cause "catastrophic" disruptions.

Airlines were scrambling on Wednesday to cancel or rebook flights after Verizon and AT&T stopped providing 5G service at several airports due to a lawsuit. But what caused the dispute? Is it possible that 5G service disrupts aircraft? And what does this mean for future 5G network development in the United States?

What is the problem?

Verizon and AT&T are preparing to launch 5G wireless services, which provide more connectivity, greater bandwidth, and ultrafast internet speeds. The C-band segment of the radio spectrum, which is where 5G technology is found, comprises a large portion of fifth-generation wireless technology, or 5G. The problem is that this part of the spectrum lies near to, but not within, the commercial aviation and air traffic operations radio band.

The Federal Aviation Administration has warned that 5G networks may jeopardize aircraft operations. The major worry is that cellular towers and antennas near airports might cause radio altimeters in aircraft to malfunction. When planes land in inclement weather or helicopters fly at low elevations, this equipment is particularly essential.

The difficulty, according to a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University, is that wireless signals aren't entirely confined to the frequencies they're licensed to use. "The worry is that 5G signals may leak into the band that airlines are currently utilizing and cause these altimeters to malfunction."

A letter from CEOs of major airlines to US transportation and economic officials released on Monday claimed that the 5G rollout might ground flights and leave tens of thousands of Americans overseas stranded.

The giants, including AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, agreed to limit C-band 5G service around some airports while they collaborate with the aviation industry and the Federal Aviation Administration on a long-term solution.

Is this something to be genuinely concerned about?

It's conceivable, Bryant said, but there has not been much verifiable evidence that 5G technology poses an increased risk to the aviation sector.

AT&T and Verizon have been complaining about the delays. 5G technology has already been deployed in more than 40 other countries without causing disruptions to airline operations, according to both firms.

Aija Leiponen, a professor at Cornell University's SC Johnson College of Business, said there is some variation in how other nations have handled the C-band spectrum, but the Federal Communications Commission and similar authorities around the world have looked into potential safety concerns with 5G technology.

"We haven't seen any known air traffic safety concerns connected with this, and 5G has been deployed in other countries much more rapidly than in the United States," she continued.

Wireless interference in aviation is not a new concern. In the United States and many other nations, in-flight cellphone usage was previously prohibited owing to concerns about cell signals interfering with onboard avionics and other navigation equipment. In 2013, the FAA began allowing passengers to use cell phones on planes if they are set to "airplane mode," which disables the phone's ability to communicate radio signals to cell towers.

The two carriers also agreed to keep buffer zones around at least 50 airports, including major hubs like New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and the Los Angeles International Airport, to minimize interference. The air operators reached an agreement to limit the extent to which 5G service is deployed around certain airport runways for a limited time.

What brought us to this point?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for regulating the usage of different radio frequencies throughout the United States.

Last year, the FCC sold licenses for C-band spectrum at auction to mobile carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, who spent $81 billion to build new 5G networks.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory to aircraft designers and operators in November, advising them that 5G transmitters and other technology may cause specific safety equipment to fail.

Dr. Chris Leiponen, an expert in cellular and wireless technology from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, agreed that 5G networks have been under construction for close to a decade.

"It's kind of strange to me that the industry is about to launch the networks and then right now, with regard to commercial aviation, things have come to a grinding halt," she added.

Airline executives and the FAA said they had previously raised concerns about 5G technology with the government, but those were generally disregarded.

The back-and-forth has exacerbated the struggle between the two industries and damaged another obstacle for the airline sector, which is still dealing with the aftermath of major flight cancellations prompted by the omicron variant and recent winter storms.

What happened in other countries?

In several other countries, the transition to 5G service has gone much more smoothly than in the United States.

In France, for example, 5G antennas were restricted in power and height to minimize potential interference.

In Canada, "exclusion zones" were set up around airfields to provide 5G service only in certain areas. To avoid interference with aircraft during landing, nearby antennas must also be tilted down and away from the flight paths.

These examples from the airline and telecommunications industries show that they may effectively collaborate to safely deploy cutting-edge technologies, according to Nabil.

"There's a lot of evidence that C-band and radio altimeters can be used together," he continued. "The next question is: Do we have the right regulations in place?

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

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