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5G and the FAA

Verizon, AT&T and the FAA started off the new year by agreeing to cut the strength of 5G signals around airports. That’s because the carriers’ 5G signals interfere with certain instruments on airplanes, such as altimeters which are used to guide planes to safe landings. The conflict affects AT&T and Verizon, not T-Mobile. Europe seems to have solved the problem.

What’s going on here? This might prove to be just a turf fight. According to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), the problem has been solved in Europe by reducing power levels for the 5G signals near airports. The issue revolves around specific C-band frequencies that airplane altimeters use for automated landings in bad weather.

The problem is nothing new. Many of you may remember the warnings about people with heart pacemakers getting too close to microwave ovens, and some people may have had problems with electric wheelchairs. Those issues were resolved, and we can’t help but think that the 5G-airplane issue will be resolved once government gets the phone carriers and airline industries together to knock out an agreement. It’s basically a matter of managing the radio spectrum to best meet the needs of both industries and possibly federal communications security needs. To be clear, it’s not the phones themselves that cause the problem. It’s the cellular towers, and that seems solved for now by lowering their transmission power.

If you’re interested in the technology, here are just a couple of quick overview points. First, the problem is with the new spectrum of 5G wireless communications — the C-Band spectrum. A study last year showed that 5G transmissions in this spectrum interfere with radio altimeters on planes, saying there is a “major risk” that these systems “will cause harmful interference to radar altimeters on all civil aircraft.” These radio altimeters run in an adjacent spectrum to 5G C-Band and are susceptible to interference.

Our second point has to do with Airplane Mode on your cell phone. Airplane Mode shuts off the radio that’s built into your phone. When your phone’s radio is active, it creates annoying noise for pilots and controllers at the least, but enough phone radios running at once can create electronic havoc. When you use an airplane’s Wi-Fi system, you’re using a low-power cell station that’s right next to your phone. It doesn’t create problems.

But our concern with 5G conflicts is related more to what happens while your plane is on the ground. When our planes land, we typically turn on our phones to call people – especially if it’s for a ride home – or to check email. More planes are generally moving around an airport on the ground than are in the air at any given time, and that can create a bigger problem as 5G phones become ubiquitous.

We don’t foresee this as a long-term issue. Even the airlines and airports have a vested interest in seeing the widespread 5G deployment because it can enhance every aspect of the “passenger experience.” It can help them with checking in passengers and their baggage, getting them more easily to the right gate and then, after landing, getting passengers to their baggage and ground transportation more efficiently.

The cell phone carriers are working to create more space. One of the reasons they are shutting down 3G cellular networks (see 3G Phones: The ‘G’ Stands for Gonzo) is to free up more of the spectrum for 5G use. They’re also developing 6G networks.

If you have any questions about the settings for Airplane Mode and turning cellular data on or off, call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us for help. We can also make sure you have your phone backed up so that you never miss a beat once you hit the ground after a flight.