An unresolved disagreement between U.S. wireless communications carriers and commercial airlines over the rollout of new 5G networks continues to generate confusion about whether air travel is safe in the United States.
On Wednesday, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest providers of mobile voice and internet service in the U.S., began turning on new wireless towers across the United States, making the ultra-fast 5G spectrum available to consumers, primarily in the more densely populated parts of the country.
Up until the last moment, there was a dispute between the carriers and major U.S. airlines over whether or not the new service would be deployed near airports. This caused a handful of international carriers, including British Airways, Lufthansa, All Nippon, Japan Airlines and Emirates, to announce that they would suspend some service to the United States until the issue was resolved.
Emirates President Tim Clark described the situation as “utterly irresponsible,” speaking earlier this week on CNN.
By Thursday morning, most of the concern about international flights had been resolved, but lingering questions remain for the United States’ vast system or regional air travel.
Interference with landing instruments possible
The 5G C-band spectrum signal used for mobile communications – for which mobile carriers paid more than $80 billion in an auction last year – is similar to the signal that commercial airlines use to measure the altitude of planes landing during inclement weather. Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have expressed concern that some aircraft devices, called radar altimeters, could experience interference from the new 5G signals, creating dangerous conditions.
On Wednesday, in a deal brokered by the Biden administration, mobile carriers said they would delay activating 5G towers near airport runways, leaving about 10% of the planned rollout inactive. In addition, the FAA specifically cleared several kinds of radar altimeters, including those commonly used in the Boeing 777, saying the data shows that 5G signals do not interfere with their systems.
In a press release Wednesday, the FAA said its new approvals “allow an estimated 62 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at airports where wireless companies deployed 5G C-band.”
Regional airports waiting for answers
While the FAA’s steps to clear large passenger planes for continued use following the 5G rollout have helped prevent problems at large airports, the new technology is causing concern about safety at regional airports across the country, which are served by a wide variety of passenger planes, typically smaller than those that fly into major hub airports.
As of Wednesday, the FAA had not updated guidance for many smaller planes. Because there were relatively few severe weather systems in the U.S. on Wednesday, that did not translate into major delays. However, industry representatives said that it was only a matter of time before challenging weather conditions would begin causing problems.
Faye Malarkey Black, the president and CEO of the regional Airline Association, used Twitter to air her concerns about the situation, saying, “Situational update: 0% of the regional airline fleet has been cleared to perform low visibility landings at #5G impacted airports if/when weather drops below minimums. Today’s fair weather is saving rural America from severe air service disruption.”
Not a new problem
The battle between the airlines and mobile carriers is particularly frustrating to many in the U.S., because it is a problem that has been successfully resolved in other countries around the world. China, the U.K., and France, for example, have managed to roll out 5G service without any significant impact on air travel. That was achieved by agreements between the parties that limited the number of cell towers near airports and the power levels at which they operate.
In a warning to its members, the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations noted that, in the U.S., “The power levels and proximities of the 5G signals are at higher power levels than any other deployment currently in use elsewhere in the world.”
The situation in the U.S. was complicated by the fact that the slice of spectrum being used for 5G services is slightly different here than it is in Europe. In the U.S., mobile carriers bought the rights to the band between 3.7 and 3.98 gigahertz, putting their signals somewhat closer to the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz being used by airlines than the European mobile carriers, which are limited to a range of 3.4 to 3.8 GHz.
The issue was raised during a press conference that U.S.President Joe Biden held at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. After being asked whether his administration bore part of the blame for confusion about flight safety, Biden characterized it as a fight between two private entities, over which the federal government exerts limited control.
“The fact is that you had two enterprises — two private enterprises — that had one promoting 5G and the other one are airlines,” Biden said. “They’re private enterprises. They have government regulation, admittedly.”
“And so, what I’ve done is pushed as hard as I can to have 5G folks hold up and abide by what was being requested by the airlines until they could more modernize over the years so that 5G would not interfere with the potential of the landing,” he said. “So, any tower — any 5G tower within a certain number of miles from the airport should not be operative.”
The confusion resulting from the 5G rollout this week is at least partly attributable to dysfunction within the federal bureaucracy. Analysts say lines of authority between agencies responsible for auctioning off the rights to the wireless spectrum and those charged with managing conflicts are unclear.
The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for spectrum auctions, but it is the Federal Aviation Administration, a part of the Department of Transportation, which makes decisions about airline safety. Further complicating matters is that the agency in charge of mediating spectrum disputes, which is located within the Commerce Department, was without a director for two-and-a-half-years, until President Biden’s nominee was confirmed last week.
That situation has led to multiple problems in the rollout of new communications technology over the years, including a recent battle during the Trump administration over whether new spectrum auctions would interfere with the satellite-based Global Positioning System