5G wireless — yet another reason to fear flying

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News images of long lines at airports with COVID-19 testing nightmares, delayed flights and exhausted passengers are putting a damper on holiday travel at the busiest time of the year. More than 2,000 flights have been canceled globally on Monday as more airline staff and crew are calling out sick as the omicron variant spreads. 

Americans had planned to take to the skies in record numbers, according to the American Automobile Association, which estimated that more than 109 million would travel during the Christmas and New Year holiday season, a 34 percent increase from 2020.

But it’s not just the pandemic that’s threatening airline travel; another safety ghost is hovering. The heads of two major airplane manufacturers – Boeing and Airbus – have warned that new attempts to introduce 5G in early January could threaten the safety of flying.   

This makes my head spin: “5G interference could adversely affect the ability of aircraft to safely operate,” wrote the bosses of Boeing and Airbus Americas, Dave Calhoun and Jeffrey Knittel, in a recent joint letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

The letter cited research by a trade group, Airlines for America, which found that if the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) 5G rules had been in effect two years ago, about 345,000 passenger flights and 5,400 cargo flights would have faced delays, diversions or cancellations.

What started this recent concern by the airlines was an FAA notification about the potentially dangerous use of a piece of equipment, known as a radio altimeter, that will help pilots land in low visibility and bad weather starting Jan. 5 at more than 40 of the nation’s busiest airports if the planned 5G activation continues as planned. (Radar altimeters differ from standard altimeters, which rely on air pressure readings and do not use radio signals to gauge altitude.)

The regulatory agency said that possible interference with aircraft radio altimeters from upcoming C-Band cell-site transmitters would require it to prohibit pilots from relying on those instruments to track their altitude above the ground near particular airports. What that means is that in bad weather, you might have to land someplace other than your destination. That sounds pretty worrisome. 

As with so much in Washington, D.C., today, there is a dispute about this issue between and among government agencies and private industry. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which plays a major role when it comes to radio frequencies (the 5G signals will travel over C-Band radio frequencies) is seemingly not worried about interference with aircraft radio altimeter based on their own research. 

Once again, conflicting news and competing narratives leave consumers confused. On the private side, AT&T and Verizon have a major stake in this fight as the providers of the 5G carriers. The companies have proposed to reduce or cap the strength of their 5G services until this impasse is resolved.

The union representing airline pilots has also weighed in to underscore the importance of getting this right:

“The FAA and FCC are at a stalemate on how to resolve this issue, and that’s a big problem for passengers, shippers, and the American economy,” wrote Captain Joseph DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association International. “Multiple countries around the world are deploying C-Band 5G in a way that has much less risk of interference with radar altimeters. The reasons include the fact that other countries are using reduced power-level limits or increasing the frequency spectrum spacing between 5G and radar altimeters.”

Fortunately, trade associations representing all the industries have pledged to work together towards a solution.

In a world where internet speed determines so much of global commerce and innovation, America must stay dominant in the technology arena. According to Ookla, which measures mobile and broadband network speeds, right now the U.S. has the highest 5G availability at 49.2 percent, followed by the Netherlands, South Korea, Kuwait and Qatar. 

But although the U.S. ranked first in availability, its actual download speeds were among the worst of early 5G adopter nations. Ookla placed median 5G download speeds at 93.73 Mbps in the U.S., far lower than the UK’s 184.2 Mbps median and far lower still than South Korea, which led the pack at 492.48.

As a new year descends upon us, we want to feel grounded in safety while able to fly around the world to see countries and friends. We envision a day when driverless cars and remote-controlled hospital workers will allow us to be healthy and free to roam. But in the meantime, our government agencies need to get their signals straight and point us in the right direction so we can all lift off safely.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Tags 5G air line pilots association international Airbus airbus americas Aircraft instruments Airlines For America Altimeter AT&T Boeing C band Federal Aviation Administration Federal Communication Commission Mobile telecommunications Pete Buttigieg Radar altimeter Technology Verizon

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