Disputes among the U.S. airline industry and federal regulators surrounding the rollout of 5G have delayed efforts to deploy the latest technology upgrades for wireless communications. The situation has also given rise to questions on how it will affect air travel.
Airlines are being warned that the signals could interfere with some altimeters that pilots use to land in conditions with low visibility.
5G is the next and newest generation mobile network and is meant to deliver higher multi-Gbps peak data speeds, ultra-low latency, more reliability, massive network capacity, increased availability, and a more uniform user experience to more users.
While there is a major concern about the larger airports, the executive director at the Virginia Tech/Montgomery Airport says his facility should not see much of an adverse effect.
“We are not anticipating any adverse impacts or changes in procedures due to the rollout of 5G,” said Keith Holt. “The 5G issue in aviation impacts a certain type of equipment called a radar altimeter used when flying low visibility instrument approaches. Very few aircraft utilizing our airport are equipped with radar altimeters, and our type of instrument approaches are not impacted by 5G.”
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a statement this week stating it anticipates some altimeters will be too susceptible to 5G interference. “To preserve safety, aircraft with those altimeters will be prohibited from performing low-visibility landings where 5G is deployed because the altimeter could provide inaccurate information,” the FAA said.
The 5G networks went live last week with buffers around airports after a prolonged battle that pitted airlines against Verizon and AT&T — which activated the new 5G networks — and the FAA against the Federal Communications Commission.
A cybersecurity expert at Virginia Tech says the bottom line is that passenger safety must always be prioritized, so until the question of interference is resolved it is likely that carriers will not deploy 5G in proximity to airports.
Luiz DaSilva, a professor of cybersecurity at Virginia Tech, is the executive director of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative.
He said the two regulatory agencies involved – the Federal Communications Commission (in charge of wireless spectrum) and the Federal Aviation Administration (in charge of aviation) – could have worked together better to avoid the current situation.
“The wireless industry follows regulations in operating in licensed spectrum defined by the FCC. There is currently a disagreement regarding what parameters of deployment, like cell tower height, frequency band, and power levels, avoid interference with existing aircraft equipment,” said DaSilva.
The current concern, according to DaSilva, has to do with some of the spectrum that has been licensed by the FCC for deployment of 5G. Wireless devices are designed to operate in specific frequency bands. If these bands overlap, devices can interfere with each other.
“Airlines are concerned that operation in some of those bands may affect some devices used in aviation, such as altimeters,” said DaSilva. “There is a lot of disagreement about whether there would in fact be interference.”
The wireless industry has already invested trillions of dollars in this technology, and 5G could be a game changer for the wireless industry.
“5G enables the next generation of mobile services, providing faster data rates, low delay, and high reliability, which can drive a whole new set of mission-critical applications supported by cellular connectivity,” said DaSilva.
Meanwhile at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport (RBRA), the rollout could cause a much-larger problem than at the Virginia Tech airport.
Brad Boettcher, director of marketing at RBRA, has told media that the main concern for airlines is the interference from those stronger cell signals from the 5G rollout.
“Because of our mountain terrain, there’s an even bigger safety buffer around that,” Boettcher said. “So, while it does impact those aircraft abilities, they might not be coming in if we have weather that’s that bad to begin with, just because of the terrain issues that we have.”