US Airlines, FAA, Mayo Pete Fighting Rearguard Action to Delay 5G Rollout Over Flight Safety Concerns; Carriers Offer Modest Concession

The spat between the FAA and FCC over the about to begin 5G launch in the US just became front page business press news, although the battle heated up big time earlier in December.

This struggle is not only important in and of itself, but it illustrates a pathology that has become pervasive in America: money talks and the public be damned.

The very short version is that Verizon and AT&T spent oodles buying 5G spectrum rights in early 2020, where despite (or as you will see, arguably because) rulemaking, the FCC imposed no meaningful restrictions on the carriers’ use of the rights they purchased. A group representing 10 airlines is having a hissy, having lost at the rulemaking phase, they are still trying to stop the 5G rollout until the safety of the 5G operation with respect to airline altimeters is concerned. As we will again see, theoretically there is no interference, but as a saying attributed to Yogi Berra goes, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

One reason the two sides are at odds is the airlines have vastly more stringent notions of safety than communications providers, and for good reasons. The reason the great unwashed public is willing to do something so seemingly crazy as get into what amounts to aluminum orange juice cans and fly at crazy heights is that the airlines have a phenomenal safety record. Their existence depends on the perception of lack of danger despite otherwise high apparent risks (look at the safety record of gliding, when most glider pilots are professionals gliding for sport, as a contrast). So their cautiousness is deeply ingrained as necessary for industry survival.

From Reuters:

The chief executives of AT&T (T.N) and Verizon Communications (VZ.N) rejected a request to delay the planned Jan. 5 introduction of new 5G wireless service over aviation safety concerns but offered to temporarily adopt new safeguards.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration chief Steve Dickson had asked AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg late Friday for a commercial deployment delay of no more than two weeks.

The wireless companies in a joint letter on Sunday said they would not deploy 5G around airports for six months but rejected any broader limitation on using C-Band spectrum.

The Verge has posted a copy of the Verizon missive.

Reuters reports that Airlines for America, which represents American Airlines, Delta, FedEx, JetBlue and UPS, among others, is pretty het up and plan to file for an emergency injunction Monday if the wireless carriers didn’t climb down.

The wireless carriers attempt to claim the moral high ground by saying they’ve made the same concessions in France that they’ve offered to make here, and that should settle the matter. But even Reuters makes clear that the French network is not the same as the US one:

FAA officials said France uses spectrum for 5G that sits further away from spectrum used for radio altimeters and uses lower power levels for 5G than those authorized in the United States.

Verizon said it will initially only use spectrum in the same range as used in France, adding it will be a couple of years before it uses additional spectrum. The larger U.S. exclusion zone around U.S. airports is “to make up for the slight difference in power levels between the two nations,” Verizon added.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), representing 50,000 workers at 17 airlines, on Sunday wrote on Twitter that pilots, airlines, manufacturers and others “have NO incentive to delay 5G, other than SAFETY. What do they think … we’re raising these issues over the holidays for, kicks?”

This gives an idea of what the airlines see at the extent of the problem:

Verizon in its letter also cheekily says the airlines had all this time to upgrade their altimeters. Please. How many airlines are involved, and more important, traffic control towers and other airport equipment that is not under the control of the airlines?

The wireless carriers’ position might seem reasonable until you realize they actually can’t make assurances. Even if their equipment really truly swear to God won’t impinge upon the spectrum the carriers’ use, there’s no guarantee they won’t. From a comment on AVWeb:

Unfortunately, as people who have been graced by the magic that is RF on a personal level, from the HAM down the street to the engineer in the lab testing the gear, have learned: just because you want to be transmitting on one set of frequencies doesn’t mean you aren’t also transmitting on a whole host of others. Furthermore, old equipment is not designed with constraints nobody had ever thought of at the time in mind.

Mass-produced, cheap RF devices are among the worst offenders, and with 5G base stations deployment being estimated in the millions by the time the rollout is “complete” to get good coverage, the only way for this huge infrastructure deployment to remain profitable for the carriers is for the equipment to be cheap and installed quickly. Cheap means likely QC issues, which mean a lot of unwanted emissions (including pop-fly spurious emissions) are likely. Installed quickly means people aren’t going to be going around doing field strength surveys to make sure the antennas aren’t aimed such that they’re bouncing or even emitting something straight up on the final approach to your local airport. While it isn’t likely to be a constant issue that renders your radar altimeter visibly wonky any time you fly over a 5G coverage area, it has been demonstrated by lab testing that there is a good probability that there will interference given the sheer number of interactions and, take this one seriously; the environment the avionics were designed to operate under – was definitely not a world covered in millions of kiloWatt range ERP transmitters broadcasting with massive bandwidth 24/7, 365.

And mind you, the discussion above covers only the base stations. Passengers have this bad way of not always respecting the directive to turn off their phones or put them in airplane mode. Consumer equipment could also send signals wider than the authorized 5G frequencies.

This is shaping up to be a Godzilla v. Mothra fight. And while the air carriers lost the first round, apparently by virtue of the FCC being captured by its industry plus massive lobbying spend, one thing the Covid crisis has established is that the powers that be regard air travel and deliveries as essential infrastructure. 5G is not. United is already having to pay pilots three times their normal rate to get them to cover for Covid stay-at-homes. What happens if some of the available pool won’t come in because they want to see at least a week of flying under 5G before they show up? Particularly in light of warnings like this Air Line Pilots’ Safety Alert from early December:

Aircraft Operations and Radar Altimeter Interference From 5G – Effective January 5, 2022

Earlier this year, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) awarded the mobile wireless industry radio spectrum to operate 5G transmissions in the “C-Band”, or 3.7-3.98 GHz, adjacent to the spectrum used by radar altimeters. This approval was made despite the aviation industry informing the FCC since 2018 of the need to ensure that radar altimeters are protected from 5G interference. Canada has also approved 5G in the C-Band, but with restrictions against using C- Band in the vicinity of 26 airports and other measures to ensure aviation safety.

Radar altimeter interference from 5G signals can take the form of loss of radar altitude information or, worse, incorrect radar altitude information unknowingly being generated. There have been fatal accidents associated with incorrect radar altitude, most recently Turkish Airlines flight 1951 in Amsterdam in 2009.

Altitude information derived from radar altimeters has been deeply integrated into aircraft systems and automation, with the latest aircraft using it to change aircraft handling qualities and prepare systems such as ground spoilers and thrust reversers for deployment prior to touchdown. This is in addition to radio altimeter use for autoland and in Category (CAT) II/III and Required Navigation Performance (RNP) AR approaches.
On November 2, 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin (SAIB), alerting operators to the potential for severe restrictions in flight operations to ensure safety at the following weblink: 69d/27ffcbb45e6157e9862587810044ad19/$FILE/AIR-21-18.pdf

We’ll see soon enough if Airlines for America goes to court. Stay tuned.

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  1. vlade

    Well, looking at this USA has its own 5G bands, unlike the rest of the world (except for the super-high frequencies, where it’s joined by Japan and South Korea).

    Maybe there is a good technical reason why the US has to have the spectrum not just close the to altimeter one (4.2-4.4 GHz), but in fact overlapping?

  2. ScoFri

    I have no idea about aviation, but because of the industry I am in I have contact with people working in the 5G space. It’s a mess, financially, technologically, and environmentally. And I see the money coming into this I just cannot believe it. If 5G was a person it would look like Elon Musk.

    And I will never put a 5G phone near my children. I do not even give them any wireless devices, my whole house it wired with internet.

    1. Carolinian

      We consumers know all about the ineptitude of ATT and one of the joke arguments by ATT and Verizon–after they’ve zealously consolidated their own industry–is that the airlines are only picking on the two companies. Of course both industries are heavily dependent on the publicly owned commons and the airlines with their serial government bailouts are hardly ones to complain about favoritism. Surely though their safety argument trumps the telecoms’ concern for their 5g business plan that nobody wanted in the first place. That they’ve been indulged so far adds the DC bureaucracy to the seamy mess.

  3. orlbucfan

    Well, I avoid flying because of all the headaches associated with our “dear friend”: de-regulation. Add Covid and this 5G to the list.

  4. Larry Y

    I’ve done some RF testing in 3G, and debugged issues in 4G and early 5G. Even then, I’m not a specialist, so RF is still black magic. I know enough that unexpected interference (harmonics, leakage, etc.) is not something you mess with.

    So, the service providers overpaid for this spectrum and need to squeeze all the revenue out of it. I get that. What really bothers me is that they are expending so much effort to fight restrictions around airports.
    Reminds me of the mindset around the space shuttle Challenger: proving something is safe is a different proposition than proving something is not safe.

  5. IMOR

    “.. the airlines have had all this time to upgrade their radar altimeters.”
    Yep. Just like the big carriers have had all this time, while pocketing billions in subsidies annually for the purpose, to build out rural and underserved areas’ phone and internet. Yep.–broadband. ,
    among very numerous others, across 20 years. First things first is a tough sell to pigs at a trough.

  6. Synoia

    Buy a beer or two, and watch the fight from from a safe place, which means keeping two feet on the ground.

  7. Michael C.

    This doctor led organization has been all over 5G and its health risks for quite some time. You might check it out to see that their concern has some scientific backing:

    When on city council in my city, I tried to alert council to do the dangers of 5G since it was being implemented. The State of Ohio removed local control (except to some aesthetic concerns, such as in historical districts) and put it at the state. It’s the same tact it took with fracking. The industry has a grip on many state legislatures across the country and has been way ahead of the curving in staving off any outrage. It will be implemented and the consequences will be something had to mitigate once in place. In short, corporations control the democracy, and we have to get over the idea that we have a democracy.

  8. Dave in Austin

    I’m no expert on this but there may be other NCers who are. I hope they chime-in..

    Low frequency gives great distance and great coverage but has low data rates. At the very, very lowest frequencies, we get the US Navy using a many-hundred-square-mile grid of wires buried in Wisconsin to send messages to subs thousands of miles away with a data rate less than that of Morse code during the Civil War.

    High frequency give much less long distance coverage but give huge local data rates, and huge data rates are what 5G is all about. China simply cleared out the 37 – 43.5 Gigahertz (GHz) range for 5G. The US started using these high frequencies during WW II and in the early space era assigned much of it to satellites, including, I believe, military satellites, (high frequency is affected by water vapor and other atmospheric issues, so use that points out into space makes sense).

    But during the 5G rollout in the US, the guv sold the low frequencies and a few higher ones to the mobile phone folks for 80-90 billion dollars. They now have a huge investment in frequencies which are great for spread-out use but not so good for high data rates. The FCC waved their hands and said “no frequency overlap problems here” and moved on, the same thing they did when they told TV viewers “the new digital reception will be as good as or better that the old analog reception”. They lied that time, as anyone using over-the-air broadcast TV can tell when one of those big aluminum tubes flies by between their living room and the local tower. Maybe they are not right this time either.

    So 10 years later the conflict comes down to the wire we call “deployment”, especially in urban areas- read near big city airports like LAX where you can sit on the porch of your crumby motel in the afternoon and watch a line of 20 blinking lights descending from the east trying to land. And if the altimeter goes bad and says “too high, cut the power and change the flap settings” for a few seconds when you’re at 600 feet… Remember, the flying public runs the country; the kids playing games with 50,000 friends via 5G don’t, especially after the first crash.

    1. Carolinian

      Apparently the radar altimeter is an issue for robot “autoland” and landing in foggy low visibility. Pilots are supposed to know how to land the old fashioned way and have backup instruments.

      As for digital tv, I watch OTA and get many more channels than analog but only via a good antenna that can be directionally pointed up there on the roof. Meanwhile when you do get a good signal the picture resolution is like 30 times greater and the tvs more reliable.

      My impression of 5g is that it is supposed to provide some new whiz bang services rather than improve what exists. There have been doubts expressed from many directions from the beginning.

  9. Oh

    The crooked cell phone companies want 5G to cram more stuff in this bandwidth, e.g. games, music, video and of course more ads. There is really no need for this junk. People don’t need to play games or watch videos on this cell phones. The crooks want to charge more for exceeding the paltry 1 GB they allow people to use.

    Thanks Jimmy Carter for starting the deregulation train and to all the other Presidents that followed him. Now we have two or three company oligopolies in most of the key consumer industry – computer, cell service, internet service, oil and gas companies, pharmceuticals and airlines (for the most part). Soon to come – toll roads, parking jails (already in big cities), water supply, book publishing and selling, home delivery, shipping….

    The two parties (actually one with two faces) competer with each other to get more money from corporations and cater to the not to the consumer.

  10. Fred

    Have they done any testing of 5g on planes? You know put the plane in a 5g hotspot maybe at a gaming or hacking convention and go for it?

  11. Prof

    There is another possibility since 5G is already rolled out all over China and their planes seem to be doing OK. Is this a ploy in the anti-China “crusade.” Perhaps not so much meant for the US but a last ditch effort to stop the roll out of 5G in other countries? Huawei is rolling it out all over the world outside the US “controlled” countries.

    If we decide it is dangerous, we will then declare that US flights cannot land in countries that have Huawei 5G…Admittedly a bit tin foil and I have no evidence. But this has really come out of nowhere.

    Also, I already don’t trust the health impacts of 5G. But this fight is not about health impacts, it is about frequencies.

    Very odd

      1. prof

        I think we can agree that the GHz measurements are the same everywhere in the world, i.e., 3.7 GHz is the same in China and Japan as in USA.

        Below appear to be the allocations in each country.

        It appears as though the discussion is about:

        But the A4A said the issue remained unresolved as of December 30, with only days remaining before 3.7 GHz license 5G operations are set to start. According to the A4A, the FCC failed – since the beginning of the C-band proceeding – to explain why it rejected evidence of the “detrimental impact of interference” from 3.7 GHz licenses on radio altimeters

        According to website

        High 5G Frequency Bands
        These bands are usually available and can be quickly cleared for 5G use.

        Geographical Area 5G Frequency Band
        Europe 3400 – 3800 MHz (awarding trial licenses)
        China 3300 – 3600 MHz (ongoing trial)
        China 4400 – 4500 MHz
        China 4800 – 4990 MHz
        Japan 3600 – 4200 MHz
        Japan 4400 – 4900 MHz
        Korea 3400 – 3700 MHz
        USA 3100 – 3550 MHz
        USA 3700 – 4200 MHz

  12. Synoia

    The US has its own version of spectrum allocation. The rest of the world uses the intentional allocation

    The solution to this is simple: All AT&T and Verizon Executives must fly on commercial airlines frequently. Congress must be told of the risks, making the issues personal to them..

    RF is weird. Working in this field is more like an art than a science.

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