Why The FAA And IATA Are Worried About 5G Affecting Planes

The newest generation of mobile connectivity, 5G, is undergoing a change. On December 5th, new services will begin rolling out in the C-band spectrum, using frequencies just a couple of hundred megahertz below the protected aeronautical spectrum. Both IATA and the FAA have raised concerns that this could interfere with sensitive equipment such as the radio altimeter, with the FAA even issuing a Special Airworthiness Bulletin earlier this week.

FAA IATA 5G interference
The FAA and IATA are both concerned about new 5G spectrum due to deploy in December. Photo: Kevin Woblick on Unsplash

Could 5G pose a risk to aviation?

The world is gearing up for the next generation of mobile connectivity, as more locations press ahead with the upgrade to 5G. The promise of blisteringly fast speeds and lower impact from congestion has many mobile data consumers excited. But for aviation, it brings with it a risk that needs to be eliminated.

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the new generation 5G technology could potentially interfere with sensitive aircraft electronics. Two days ago, the Administration issued a Special Airworthiness Bulletin (SAIB) warning of this problem, which stated that,

“Operators should be prepared for the possibility that interference from 5G transmitters and other technology could cause certain safety equipment to malfunction, requiring them to take mitigating action that could affect flight operations.”

Specifically, the FAA warned of potential degradation to the capabilities of safety systems that depend on a piece of equipment known as the radio altimeter. This electronic device, also known as the RALT or radalt, measures the altitude of the aircraft above the terrain, by bouncing beams of radio waves to the ground and back and measuring how long the return takes.

FAA IATA 5G interference
5G has already been rolled out in many locations, but a new segment of spectrum is causing concern. Photo: F. Muhammad from Pixabay

Of course, 5G has already begun rolling out in many cities around the world, with much of Western Europe, Australia, North America and parts of South America and Asia already connected with the next-generation technology. So what’s changed to make it a risk to aviation now?

The C-band

Back in February, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auctioned off a new segment of C-band spectrum for 5G providers. This spectrum runs from 3.7–3.98 GHz, bringing it close to the global aeronautical band of 4.2–4.4 GHz. Deployment of 5G on these new frequencies is expected to begin on December 5th.

In October last year, the RTCA published a report outlining the unresolved safety issues surrounding the release of these new frequencies for 5G. The organization stated that,

“…the risk is widespread and has the potential for broad impacts to aviation operations in the United States, including the possibility of catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of appropriate mitigations.”

It argued that radio altimeters may be susceptible to interference, even if from nearby bands and not within its own band. It urged stakeholders from both industries to come together to figure out solutions, a notion that the International Air Transport Association well supports. At a media briefing yesterday, IATA’s Director General Willie Walsh noted that the Association certainly shares the concerns of the FAA when it comes to 5G. He stated,

“We do share the concerns. Clearly, the radio altimeter, the radalt, is a very important, critical piece of instrumentation on board aircraft today. And anything that interferes with its functionality is something that does cause us concern. We believe that this issue can be addressed by the relevant agencies engaging with one another to ensure that we don’t have a situation whereby there is possibly interference from 5G antenna to the use of the radalt.

“We are engaged, like a lot of individual airlines, with the aviation authorities around the world to highlight this issue and to understand the extent of the problem and the potential impact of the problem. Clearly anything that interferes with the safe operation of an aircraft is something that must be eliminated. So we will be looking to aviation authorities and regulators to address this issue in a sensible manner.”

The FCC has said in the past that it believes that the separation of at least 220 MHz from the radio altimeter operations are sufficient to protect aeronautical services. The FAA notes that, to date, there has been no definitive evidence of interference. However, it is issuing the SAIB to raise awareness and to provide guidance to airlines and pilots.


Why The FAA And IATA Are Worried About 5G Affecting Planes

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