[Written By External Partner]

The 5G wireless technology promises to usher in a new frontier of internet-connected technology through ultrafast downloading speeds, increased bandwidth and low latency compared to the 4G network. As a result, anything from playing simple internet-based games like online slot machines and sudoku to bandwidth-heavy activities like cloud computing, video streaming and video conferencing is a lot more efficient with 5G.

Currently, the wireless industry has invested more than $80 billion on the leading-edge wireless spectrum that can transmit 5G signals much further than the ultra-high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum. And even with the increased transmission radius, it will still maintain faster downloading speeds of the low-frequency range. With such improvements underway, they will boost the penetration of 5G to transform our lives primarily in Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and virtual reality (VR).

However, like with any new technology, the rollout of 5G faces a few causes for concern, the main worry being whether 5G wireless signal poses a risk to the aviation industry. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) even went as far as issuing warnings that the 5G rollout could cause flight cancellations, delays and diversions during poor weather and at night when pilots cannot see the runway. With such concerns in mind, AT&T and Verizon, two of the leading wireless network operators in the US, had even delayed their plans to bring 5G transmitters online in January 2022. Today, we dig deep into how 5G could affect the aviation industry and whether any measures can be taken to avert the potential risks.

Is There a Real Safety Issue?

The radar altimeter, a piece of equipment used by pilots to land planes in case of bad weather, must be accurate and reliable. However, the airwave spectrum used by the 5G wireless network could crash the signals used by radar altimeters on all aircraft, including passenger and cargo airlines, emergency medical transport helicopters, and military or private jets.

In addition, the interference by the 5G C-band may affect the engine and braking systems of airplanes and prevent them from transitioning to landing mode. This, of course, could lead to fatalities. As a result, the FAA requested the US government to push the 5G wireless network rollout dates as they review the data of the 46 wireless transmitters in the US that could potentially impact airplane systems.

Nonetheless, the wireless network operators in the United States have proven that the 5G network operates safely in at least 40 countries worldwide. Moreover, US airplanes already fly in and out of these countries daily, and so, network carriers have termed the claims from the aviation industry as overblown.

What About Flight Disruptions?

In an industry that has been highly affected by the covid pandemic, the disruptions following the rollout of the 5G wireless network would be catastrophic. For example, based on the worst-case scenario, Airlines of America estimate that the 5G rollout could disrupt at least 350,000 flights costing airlines as much as $2.1 billion a year.

Additionally, aircraft manufacturers have warned that some safety systems will be deemed unusable, and a large number of the fleet will have to be grounded indefinitely. For example, Medivac helicopters may be affected by the 5G technology and could ground operations, meaning patients may not be reached on time, causing devastating effects in the medical field. Therefore, immediate intervention is required to avoid operational disruptions to delivering time-sensitive medical supplies, such as covid-19 vaccination and testing, the country’s supply chain and air passengers.

What Measures Have Been Implemented to Address the Concerns?

As of mid-January 2022, the FAA has cleared about 45% of the US commercial fleet to land during low visibility in airports where the 5G wireless network will be deployed. Additionally, FAA has approved two altimeter models widely installed by Airbus and Boeing companies.

Some of the aircraft models that the FAA has approved include Airbus A310, A319, A320, A321, A330, A350, and Boeing 737, 747, 757, 767, and MD-10/-11 models. However, the number is expected to rise once the FAA approves more airplane models. The clearance and approval of altimeters have opened up at least 48 out of the 88 directly affected airports.

FAA also requires that the operators of Boeing 787 take additional precautions when landing during bad weather at airports where the 5G wireless services have been rolled out. On the other hand, the wireless companies have agreed to create 2-mile buffer zones from airports runways for the next six months in 50 US airports that could potentially be affected by the 5G signal.

In addition, the Aviation oversight body will continue providing more information on the projected percentage of aircraft altimeters that can perform accurately and reliably in the 5G wireless environment. Other factors that will be considered to ensure a smooth flow in the aviation industry include the number of low-visibility days, traffic volume and the geographical location of the wireless transmitters.

Final Thoughts

While evidence in other countries dictates otherwise, it is still too early to tell whether the FAA concerns are legitimate or not. Thankfully, since the FAA and the wireless companies agreed to create buffer zones around airports, there is real progress towards finding a workable solution that will be a win for both parties.

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