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Why is the US 5G Rollout Throwing Airlines Across the World Into Turmoil?

Jan 20, 2022 5:04 AM 6 min read

Air India, Emirates, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Korean Air are some of the airlines that have cancelled or rescheduled flights to various American cities on the eve of the impending 5G rollout by US telecom companies.

Over 1,000 flights and 100,000 passengers may have been affected.

Many American airlines (led by Delta, United and Southwest) have warned the 5G rollout could lead to (1) a “catastrophic” aviation crisis and (2) many of their aircraft being rendered unusable.

Telcos have repeatedly countered these claims, saying they are misguided and not backed by evidence or precedent.

The ongoing pandemonium at American airports was a long time coming (we’ll see why shortly) and has been characterised by an increasingly public row between two powerful government agencies - with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) + airlines on one side and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) + telcos on the other.

What’s going on?

Spectrum Specifics

Three things you need to know about "spectrum".

One, it comprises the range of radio waves that are used in the communications industry. Essentially, everything from FM radio broadcasts to Bluetooth to WiFi runs on spectrum waves. These waves can be low-frequency (require less energy to travel a certain distance) or high-frequency (more energy to travel the same distance). This can also be read as high frequency = faster service.

Two, it is a sovereign asset, whose allocation and usage are determined and overseen by a nation’s government.

Three, entire industries are reliant on the exclusive and definitive demarcation of spectrum waves (aka bands). That’s because if anyone could broadcast anything they wanted at any frequency, it would be total chaos. It would lead to a lot of “interference”, which would stop everything from smartphones to telecom towers from functioning normally. That’s why spectrum band allocations are a big deal (and so expensive).


Mayhem in the States

Now, what's happening in the US?

Last year, mid-range 5G bandwidth in the so-called C-Band (which represents the radio frequency band between 3.7 and 3.98 GHz) was auctioned by Uncle Sam to mobile phone companies (mainly Verizon and AT&T) for about $80bn.

The C-Band is a big deal for the telecom sector. It's often referred to as the "Goldilocks frequency", a spectrum sweet spot that delivers optimum speed and coverage rather flawlessly. It was initially reserved for large TV satellites but was authorised for allocation for telcos in 2020 under revised rules that sought to boost Washington's 5G targets.

Meanwhile, the aviation industry looked on with increasing alarm. Much of this had to do with altimeters, which are aviation instruments that (1) measure how far above the ground an aircraft is flying and (2) help facilitate automated landings, especially during low-visibility conditions, and (3) detect wind disturbances.

Altimeters operate in the 4.2-4.4 GHz range, which operates a little too close to the C-Band auctioned for 5G purposes. And even within the allotted range, the fear was that telcos would opt to operate in the higher frequency because, as we’ve seen, higher frequency = more speed, and 5G is all about speed.


War of Words

The inter-agency 5G fracas is not a recent occurrence. It can be traced back to at least 2020, when the FCC studied the usage of 5G transmitters near airports and concluded that they posed no threat to aircraft safety.

The FAA disagreed, saying considerable risks remained. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said the 5G directives would bar the use of radio altimeters at about 40 of the biggest American airports and in the event of bad weather or heavy smog, “you could only do visual approaches essentially”.

Matters escalated towards the end of 2021, as the 5G’s D-Day neared. Airlines’ CEOs appealed to the White House, saying the “vast majority of the travelling and shipping public will essentially be grounded” and also warning that the rollout could disrupt up to 4% of daily flights.

Verizon and AT&T had initially planned to kickstart 5G operations on December 5th. Following reservations voiced by Boeing and Airbus, this was shifted to January 5th. But airports remained unconvinced.

At the eleventh hour, a last-minute deal was hammered out: (1) 5G deployment would be delayed by “no more than two weeks”, (2) telcos would observe “exclusion zones” around major US airports for six months, (3) Verizon also promised to not use spectrum closer to the higher band for “several years”, and (4) in exchange, the FAA would stop opposing telcos and agree to 5G deployment on January 19th.


Bitter Fruits of Faulty Labour

This week’s developments, with major flights cancelled and entire schedules rejigged even before D-Day, suggest the deal is off.

Indeed, on Monday airline executives repeated warnings that 5G deployment could spark huge problems and that the “nation’s commerce will grind to a halt”.

Finally, the latest development. On Tuesday, a last-minute attempt by the White House to tame tempers and salvage the situation led to a second agreement. Under this, about 90% of telcos’ 5G rollout would proceed as planned but expansion of the service near airports would be delayed (with a buffer zone of at least two miles from runways) until a “permanent, workable solution” could be reached between the FAA and FCC.

President Joe Biden said the truce “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions”, but did not shed light on how long it might take for airports to jump aboard the 5G bandwagon.


Who’s Right, Though?

Now, the FCC and telcos argue that 5G and airline safety can very well coexist. They point to the 40 or so countries that deployed 5G within the Goldilocks range without any interference incidents. "...there is not a single report of 5G causing harmful interference with air traffic of any kind [in these countries]," to quote the President of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

The FAA counters that most of these countries have (1) also put in place measures to mitigate possible interference, such as lower power levels around airports, and (2) auctioned 5G spectrum in lower ranges than the US (the EU, for instance, auctioned the 3.4-3.8 GHz range, while in South Korea it was 3.42-3.7 GHz), which reduced the possibility for interference.

The general sentiment among experts seems to be sympathetic towards the FCC. After all, 5G already functions alongside airports around the world and no issues have come up so far. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, which oversees airline ops in 31 states, stated on December 17th that “no risk of unsafe interference has been identified in Europe”. The situation is similar in other jurisdictions.

Moreover, much of the problem can be interpreted as bureaucratic hubris, and there are too many fingers pointed at the FAA. The FCC says airlines had years to prepare for the 5G era - good time that they could have used to upgrade their old and poor-quality altimeters to advanced versions that are less susceptible to interference. Also, good time that they whiled away. The FAA, meanwhile, has conceded that the costs of upgrading equipment would be “substantial” - costs a COVID-battered industry would be more than unhappy to incur.


Save Our Spectrums

While the chaos at American airports right now may be attributed to your average bureaucratic tardiness (after all, such situations didn't happen in other countries), it does shed light on another topic, one of ballooning urgency: The radio-frequency spectrum in many countries is already heavily crowded. And, to put it in relatable terms, the radio spectrum is a non-renewable resource.

FYI: It’s a problem that was (presciently) recognised by even former US President Harry Truman way back in 1950, when he characterised “the scarcity of radio frequencies in relation to the steadily growing demand” as “the most pressing communications problem”.

The frequency allocations charts of the US, EU and India already look like messy mixtures of mismatched rainbows. The unlicensed portions (aka the white spaces) are reducing by the day. And existing bands - already used by everyone from space agencies and armed forces to broadcasters and big businesses - will become increasingly pricey real estate as technology advances exponentially.

Under these hypercompetitive circumstances, spectrum may become yet another divisive, coveted, all-for-me-none-for-you natural resource. Everybody’s going to want a piece of the radio pie. And keeping everyone happy will be a tough row to hoe.


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