The parties involved in the controversy over 5G technology for broadband cellular networks are like tectonic plates moving inexorably toward one another.
On one side, there’s AT&T, Verizon and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); on the other a Who’s Who of airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and — in a rare moment of amity — rival airplane manufacturers The Boeing Company and Airbus SE.
The resulting eruptions in the world of air travel and telecommunications will be felt for some time, not least by customers, including users of air freight services. Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake. Worse, the U.S. stands to be labeled a laggard in its adoption of technology critical to staying competitive with China and even Europe.
What’s This All About?
Verizon and AT&T planned to flip the switch on extensive 5G mobile phone services on January 18. 5G cellular technology allows much faster and reliable transmission of voice and other data — necessary for the new generation of digital services such as systems for autonomous vehicles.
The technology is already well-established in China. Data from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology showed that 5G accounted for 75.9% of total mobile phone shipments in 2021. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that China has more 5G subscribers than the U.S. per capita, more 5G smartphones for sale at lower prices, and more widespread 5G coverage. Connections in China are, on average, faster than in the U.S., too.
The U.S. can ill afford to lag its most significant economic rival in this critical technology. “More is at stake than the speed with which sports fans can gamble on their phones,” Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle said. “High-speed wireless is a major economic and technical battlefield on which national security depends.”
But the lag looks set to continue. In a letter sent to various government agencies, including the Department of Transportation, the airline industry said turning on 5G near airports would cause a "completely avoidable economic calamity."
The chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines were joined by others in saying that "immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies," including vaccine distribution.
The airlines and others fear that C-band 5G signals from towers situated near airports will disrupt planes' radio altitude meters, or altimeters, a 100-year-old technology which still guides airplanes today in situations of poor visibility.
In response, AT&T and Verizon agreed to restrict 5G near airports, and President Biden announced an indefinite delay of 5G service over C-Band spectrum in certain parts of the country. That action was followed by an agreement between the two wireless companies and the FAA “that will enable more aircraft to safely use key airports while also enabling more towers to deploy 5G service,” according to the agency. FAA said it had received additional data from the companies that would allow for shrinking those areas where they were deferring 5G activation.
Even so, international carriers that rely heavily on the widebody 777 and other Boeing aircraft cancelled early flights or switched to different planes, before the FAA gave approval for more types of planes, including the Boeing 777, to land in low visibility near 5G signals.
Among those most affected was Emirates, a crucial east-west carrier that flies only the 777 and the double-decker Airbus A380. Emirates president Tim Clark told CNN that the situation was "one of the most delinquent, utterly irresponsible" he has seen in his aviation career.
Hasn’t 5G Been in the Cards for Years?
What’s puzzling is why the airline industry is only recently pressing its concerns, right on the deadline for the introduction of 5G technology. Back in 2020, the FCC issued a 258-page regulatory decision it says adopted comprehensive rules that safeguard aeronautical services from any harmful interference. But the airline industry has leveraged its commercial clout to throw doubt on the science.
AT&T and Verizon had already agreed to put plans on hold late last year, and again January 4, after a request from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the FAA. But they’re not going to delay the rollout forever, having invested tens of billions of dollars in the 5G infrastructure.
Emirates’ Tim Clark criticized the U.S. government for selling its franchise for the required frequencies for a large amount of money — more than $80 billion, according to the Washington Post — without ascertaining safety for aircraft. “Somebody should have told them at the time [about] the risks and the dangers they placed in certain frequency uses around field, airfields, metropolitan fields,” he said.
Similar 5G mobile networks have been deployed in many countries in Asia and Europe, but there are key differences in how the U.S. networks are designed that raised concern about potential problems for airlines.
The Verizon and AT&T networks use a segment of the radio spectrum that is close to the one used by the radio altimeters. The FCC set a buffer between the frequencies used by 5G and altimeters, but the FAA and the airline industry say it’s not wide enough.
Still a “Fluid” Situation
The Department of Transportation has remained mute on the subject, but BBC News reported that negotiations are continuing at the highest levels of the U.S. government about what has been described as a "very fluid situation."
Meanwhile, the FCC issued a withering criticism of the Biden Administration’s handling of the situation. “This is a clear failure of leadership,” said commissioner Brendan Carr. “At any point in time, the White House could have stood up and sided with the science. They didn’t.”
“Part of what's going on in the U.S. is old-fashioned, Beltway-style bureaucratic politics,” said Pádraig Belton, a journalist covering technology and global business issues, in an article in LightReading.com. “There are two agencies at work, each keen to champion the industry it regulates – and to foist expenses, if possible, elsewhere.”
The FAA issued new approvals that allow an estimated 62% of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at airports where wireless companies deployed 5G C-band.
The new safety buffer announced around airports in the 5G deployment further expanded the number of airports available to planes with previously cleared altimeters to perform low-visibility landings. The FAA subsequently cleared another three altimeters. But the situation remains uncertain, to say the least.
“We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner,” an AT&T spokesperson told the Guardian. “We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers.”
The telecom companies have pointed out that there have not been any accidents in other countries where 5G is operational, and American airlines regularly fly to those countries.
In this rapidly developing situation, one thing is sure: we’re in for a clash of titans.
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