5G and aviation: what went wrong and where are we?

After a series of delays, 5G services launched in 46 U.S. markets on January 19, using frequencies in a radio spectrum called the C-band. These frequencies can be close to those used by radio altimeters, important safety equipment. in airplanes.

The risk of flying an aircraft with a compromised radio altimeter can be disastrous. In 2009, for example, a Turkish Airlines flight experienced faulty radio altimeter readings during approach, which contributed to its fatal crash landing that left nine people dead.

Due to security concerns, some areas have been exempted from the January 19 launch. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and providers Verizon and AT&T have since agreed on measures they say will allow more planes to safely use key airports while allowing more towers to deploy 5G service. . The FAA said it now has more precise data on the exact location of wireless transmitters and supported further analysis of how 5G C-band signals interact with sensitive aircraft instruments. The FAA used this data to determine that it is possible to safely and more accurately map the size and shape of areas around airports where 5G signals are attenuated, reducing the areas where wireless carriers are postponing their activations. antenna. According to the FAA, this will allow wireless service providers to safely light up more towers when rolling out new 5G service in major U.S. markets.

On Feb. 3, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said the stuttered launch of 5G and problems with aviation in the United States could have been avoided. “Many aviation stakeholders expressed concerns to Trump-appointed former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai before and after the FCC vote to open C-band for wireless use. thread in 2018. But they were ignored. DeFazio cited various examples from 2019 and 202 of letters expressing concern.

DeFazio was addressing a committee hearing titled “Finding the Right Frequency: 5G Deployment and Aviation Safety” convened by Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen (D-WA) spoke at a committee hearing. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson was also present.

DeFazio said he doesn’t oppose the rollout of 5G but argued that a “dropped call or the inability to access a slightly faster internet connection isn’t nearly the same as the risk of a potential aviation accident”.

He cautioned that using other countries as examples of successful and safe 5G rollouts was of no use, as most of those countries use dramatically lower 5G power levels than the United States. operate 5G farther from the frequency used by aircraft radio altimeters or required significant security. mitigation measures, such as airport exclusion zones or 5G antenna placement requirements, to limit the potential for harmful interference to aircraft.

“As I have said before, making this comparison without acknowledging the critical differences that exist between the United States and all other countries that have deployed 5G technology is fallacious, misleading, and displays a blatant disregard for potential security measures. necessary to protect the flying public.

Echoing DeFazio, Chairman Larsen said the aviation industry raised concerns about 5G interference as early as 2015.

Larsen recalled a recent event. “On January 24, 25, and 26, Alaska Airlines canceled over 50 flights at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, my hometown. Was it the thicker-than-usual 24-hour fog? No, planes are flying in worse. Was it the Embraer 175 radio altimeter? Also no. Or the orientation of the track? Was it pointing in the wrong direction? It’s a stupid assumption to make. Was it simply the presence of a radio tower with a 5G transmitter soon to be activated? No, not only that. Unfortunately, the problem was that all of these things came together in a perfect storm of technology.

“This true story about 5G and aviation security shows that the problem we are tackling today has more layers than a Dagwood sandwich,” Larsen said.

Larsen called for the establishment of informal or formalized communication between the FAA and the FCC. Additionally, he recommended an informal non-governmental discussion “on 5G, on radio altimeters, on next steps that can be used to inform more formal mechanisms.”

FAA Administrator Dickson spoke about the work to date and the impact on the aviation industry. He said while buffer zones created by wireless service providers reduce the strength of 5G signals around airports, they don’t eliminate it completely.

He added that the FAA will move quickly to use test data and other information to further refine its models and safely enable additional 5G deployment. “We are confident that we will resolve this issue safely with minimal disruption, but we recognize that some altimeters, particularly older models used by certain segments of the aviation industry, may not be approved as safe in presence of 5G emissions and interference, and may need to be replaced.

During the hearing, Rep. Tim Burchett asked Dickson why the FAA waited a month before the originally planned 5G rollout to take security mitigations. Dickson responded that the FAA does not regulate telecommunications companies and therefore does not have the necessary data before it can work directly with them. “And as we found out when we started this dialogue, the data that we were asking them for, they had in fact never provided to the government before.”

During the hearing, Captain Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the FAA should be funded and tasked to stay better informed and included as a key stakeholder in all national spectrum strategies, including wireless mobile radio spectrum (5G or future). strategies. “The FAA should be empowered to interact directly with the FCC if necessary and not be limited in coordination by relying on another federal agency that does not understand the carefully crafted and very robust security risk mitigation strategy of aviation,” Capt. DePete said.

Airlines for America has presented data on the impact of 5G since January and said the issue will likely take years rather than weeks to fully resolve. “The U.S. aviation industry should not be in this position and the process that led to this operational nightmare should be presented as a cautionary tale of government communication and coordination gone wrong,” said the President and CEO. of Airlines for America executive Nicholas E. Calio. “It’s not a partisan issue; it is a problem of government process that desperately needs to be addressed. Presumably there will be 6G, 7G and many other spectrum usage issues in the future; these efforts must be seamlessly integrated into the wider economy without causing seismic disruptions in critical segments of the industry. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the current dynamics, but a framework can be put in place to ensure this never happens again in our industry, or any other for that matter.

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