The FAA said in December that hundreds of flights and helicopters will be restricted from using guided and auto-landing systems at airports with 5G cell towers near the runway as part of a plan to expand high-frequency cell coverage on Jan. 5, 2022. These methods are generally employed when the weather is bad and visibility is poor. The agency has not disclosed which airports would be affected, but has stated that it will do so shortly.
Although it has never been proven that a cellphone caused an aircraft disaster, airlines forbid its usage in flight due to the minuscule probability that they will. Radio waves have the potential to interfere with safety devices. Now there’s a new concern: increased 5G mobile service, which is set to launch in January, might exacerbate the situation.
The 5G cell service, which allows for quicker downloads and internet connections, is currently accessible and in use across the country, but the projected extension into 46 areas would be a big change because it runs on a different spectrum.
“It’s probably safe,” Slotnick argues, “but the FAA insists on it being proven safe.”
The FAA’s Concerns
In early November, the federal agency published a statement warning that the new 5G spectrum, known as C-band, runs at frequencies similar to those used by cockpit radar altimeters. The new order particularly applies to 6,800 planes and 1,600 helicopters with potentially faulty equipment.
“A dangerous situation exists that… might result in the loss of continuing safe flight and landing,” the FAA stated in an Airworthiness Directive (a ruling to correct an unsafe condition). However, it also stated that it believes 5G and aviation can coexist safely and that it is working closely with the wireless sector and authorities to develop a viable solution.
The Air Line Pilots Association hailed the FAA news and encouraged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which governs radio spectrum allocation and has cleared the use of 5G, to figure out a safe solution with the US cellular sector. Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rick Larsen (D-WA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, have also encouraged the FCC to perform a “comprehensive risk assessment” before proceeding. “We never gamble with safety in aviation,” the members stated in a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.
In response to the FAA’s inquiries, major mobile operators Verizon and AT&T have already postponed their planned 5G deployment from early December until January. They also agreed to limit the strength of tower broadcasts for six months. Other carriers, such as T-Mobile, are less affected because the majority of their 5G service works in a separate spectrum that the FAA is less concerned about.
The cellular industry claims there is no risk and has even set up a website, 5GandAviation.com, to assuage public concerns. It points out that 5G is being utilized in almost 40 nations with no known issues and has been researched for years by US regulators and others across the world.
“5G networks employing C-band spectrum run safely and without creating detrimental interference to aviation equipment,” said Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of the CTIA, a group that represents the wireless communications industry in the United States, in a statement. “Any delay in activating this spectrum jeopardizes America’s competitiveness and imperils our capacity to assure global 5G leadership.”
Even if 5G is available, believes he’ll board an aircraft in January, despite the fact that he’ll be more likely to experience weather delays and cancellations. “I’d feel secure going on,” he says. “The industry is based on safety, and it will go to any length to ensure safety.”