All bad things are G? Over in Europe, people are mostly fed-up to the back teeth hearing about 2G or 3G Covid-rules, whereas in the U.S.A., it is 5G that has been the bane of aviation again, recently. Whilst Conspiracy Theorists will be quick to tell you that the two (Covid and 5G) are most definitely related, truth of the matter is that, in this particular case, the risk of aircraft system interference is yet another headache that the international aviation industry is having to deal with in a coincidental, ongoing pandemic.
As if having to constantly update and replan flight schedules because of ever-changing Covid-regulations were not difficult enough, all U.S.-serving airlines have been frantically working out Plan Bs in their U.S. operations these past weeks, in what Emirates’ boss, Tim Clark, calls “one of the most delinquent, utterly irresponsible” situations he has ever seen in his aviation career. “[..] because it involves organs of government, manufacturers, science, etc. […] The notion that the United States government should sell its franchise for all the frequencies for a large amount of money. Somebody should have told them at the time [of] the risks and the dangers they placed in certain frequency uses around field, airfields, metropolitan fields...”
A G-spot of bother
Talk is of telecommunication providers such as Verizon’s and AT&T’s long planned 5G U.S.A. nationwide-rollout, which was initially due to go live in December 2021, but had already been twice delayed due to Federal Aviation Administration safety concerns regarding wavelength interference with aircraft radar altimeters. Whilst it was now finally turned on across much of the country on 19JAN22, the White House and the telecom providers reached an agreement the day before, to again temporarily delay the rollout of the technology near airports until a consensus could be reached on how best to address the potential air safety problem.
Referring to the major upheaval in schedules that many airlines would otherwise have suffered, having to suspend, delay, or replan different aircraft types on their U.S. flights (as per a “risk list” which for example advises deploying B747-400 instead of B747-800s – another headache given some airlines have their older models still parked…), American Airlines’ CEO, Doug Parker, commented on the last-minute reprieve: “It's taken a while to get to the right spot, but I feel like we're in the right spot. I don't think you're going to see any material disruption going forward because of this.” Scott Kirby, United’s CEO, said: “While I wish it happened earlier, the good news is we now have everyone engaged, the FAA and DOT at the highest levels, [...] aircraft manufacturers, airlines and the telecoms. While we don't have a final resolution quite yet, I'm confident we'll get there.”
Not so fast, G.I. Joe!
The U.S. telecommunications branch is not happy, as Megan Ketterer, speaking for AT&T pointed out: “We are frustrated by the FAA’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.” Indeed, over in the EU, where the Commission has stoically followed its 2016 5G action plan, aiming to begin launching 5G services in all EU Member States by the end of 2020 (and is already working on 6G concepts), the rollout has not been hampered so much by air safety concerns. The reason for this is that European 5G services operate in a slower 3.4 to 3.8 GHz range on the radio wave spectrum, whilst American mobile phone companies are rolling out 5G service at radio waves frequencies of between 3.7 and 3.98 GHz (also known as the C-Band).
Thus, the U.S. 5G service is uncomfortably close to the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz spectrum used by radar altimeters, IATA and IFALPA warn: “If there is no proper mitigation, this risk has the potential for broad impacts to aviation operations in the United States as well as in other regions where the 5G network is being implemented next to the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz frequency band.” The risk is that aircraft altimeters, which pilots rely on particularly during low visibility, may either provide incorrect readings or malfunction altogether, if their radio waves do not bounce back because of 5G interference, or cannot be distinguished from other nearby waves.
Look the other way!
So, what should the U.S. be looking at, to get 5G up and running around airports without the risk to air safety? Telecom providers and carriers should work closely with aviation authorities to determine the optimum height and signal power of a 5G antenna, and its proximity to the runway and flight paths. France is stated as an example of how this can work, where these points are listed in France’s National Frequency Agency (ANFR) technical notes. It also stipulates that antennae in the vicinity of major French airports must be tilted away from flight paths to minimize the risk of interference. All these measures were discussed in advance and strictly applied, with France’s civil aviation authority confirming to CNN recently, that “no event of 5G technology interfering with aircraft altimeters has been recorded by French operators.”
Train to handle fallouts
While the FAA went so far in December 2021, as to order pilots not to use altimeters in cases of low visibility at possible affected airports, to avoid potential interference altogether, EASA is far more pragmatic in its approach, recommending airlines to “consider exposing flight crews to unreliable radio altimeter scenarios” during training and to ensure that crews are aware of “the potential degradation in the performance of installed radio altimeters.”
AA’s Doug Parker is optimistic that the U.S.A. will eventually come to a sensible solution, telling CNN on 20JAN22, that: “The technical experts that are working on it tell us it's really not that complicated once they all are able to share information and work on it. So, they seem encouraged that we'll be able to address this in a way that allows for full deployment of 5G, including near airports. I don't expect, until we get to the point that everyone is really comfortable, that you'll see anything turned on near airports, because no one wants to go through this again.”
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