Inside raging war between airlines and Internet firms on 5G rollout

Airlines and telecom firms in the US have been clashing of late. The bone of contention? The rollout of 5G Internet which seeks to revolutionise the technology world.

Airlines contend that 5G poses a great risk to their operations by interfering with aeroplane navigation systems, especially at night and in bad weather making it difficult for aircraft to land. 

Although leading 5G providers Verizon and AT&T started rolling out their 5G internet yesterday, they have done so under a cloud of uncertainty. Following the airlines’ concerns, the communications giants have agreed to delay the activation of the fast internet near airports until the issue of frequencies is comprehensively dealt with.

5G is the next generation of mobile internet with mindboggling speed, enabling users to download and upload vast amounts of data much more quickly. Also many devices can plug onto mobile internet at the same time without comprising on speed and quality of services.

The row about 5G’s potential danger to aircraft operations began in December when planemakers, Airbus and Boeing raised the alarm, saying it poses major risks to their aircraft systems. These concerns compelled the Federal Aviation Administration to request for rollout delay until safety of airline operations was unequivocally assured.  

“If there’s the possibility of a risk to the flying public, we are obligated to restrict the relevant flight activity until we can prove it is safe,” the FAA said on its website.

President Joe Biden has been roped into the matter, playing a key role in pushing telecom firms to agree to put the rollout on hold near airports.

“This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans,” he is reported to have said.

So what really is the anatomy of the problem? Experts say the frequencies allocated to network operators and airplanes are close to the signals used by airplane altimeters.

The US telecom operators were allocated frequencies, referred to as C-Band, between 3.7 and 3.98 gigahertz for their 5G networks.  The C-band service offers faster speeds and broader coverage.

These frequencies aren’t far from the frequencies used by airline radio altimeters, which operate between 4.2 and 4.4 GHz.

Altimeters measure the distance between an aircraft and the ground, and they are critical during plane’s landing especially in a bad weather or at night.

This means in a situation where there’s potential for 5G frequencies to interfere with aircraft altimeters, the logical thing to do as a matter of safety is to delay flights. However, the downside to this move is that it is bound to substantially disrupt transport and logistics at night and when there exists widespread bad weather.

In the US alone, it is estimated that bad weather could cause a delay or cancellation of more than 1,000 flights, which means a vast section of travel and shipping will be disrupted.

In late 2020, the RTCA – a US organisation which produces technical guidance on aviation issues, warned in a survey of a “catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of appropriate mitigations”.

This has been echoed by chief executives of the largest airlines in the United States who have warned of “catastrophic disruption” to travel and shipping operations after 5G rollout.

“The concern is that the smaller gap between the upper 5G frequency in the US and these frequencies is small enough to potentially cause interference as aircraft are on approach to land,” Nigel Linge, telecommunications professor at the University of Salford in the UK, told AFP.

But mobile networks operators are unhappy lot, with AT&T voicing its concerns.

“We are frustrated by the Federal Aviation Administration’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,” AT&T said in a statement.

The worries of the telecoms is understandable taking into account the fact that they have spent billions of dollars to acquire the frequencies. And the earlier they active the 5G the better for their huge investments.

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