Wednesday, March 22, 2023
HomeTechWhy airline passengers’ safety is at ‘risk’ when 5G towers are placed...

Why airline passengers’ safety is at ‘risk’ when 5G towers are placed around airports

At least 25 flights operated by Boeing 777 jets to the US were cancelled after the rollout of 5G services was announced. Alarm bells have been sounded in India too.

Text Size:

New Delhi: The roll out of the fifth-generation mobile network or 5G has run into problems in the US. The American aviation industry has warned that 5G towers set up by AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. near American airports could risk the safety of tens of thousands of fliers, because of the C-Band which airlines and 5G networks will share for their operations. This will affect certain types of radar altimeter equipment close to antennas in 5G networks.

At least 25 flights operated by Boeing 777 jets to the US were cancelled, according to data from flight-tracking company In addition to Emirates, Air India and the Japanese carriers, British Airways also cancelled some flights and shifted to Airbus SE’s A380 and A350 jets, as well as Boeing 787s. Lufthansa switched its aircraft to the 747-400 from 747-8 on the Frankfurt-Chicago route.

Concerns regarding the 5G network’s impact on civil aviation are not new. American civil aviation regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been red-flagged these concerns for “years”.

This is not the first time the US telecom companies have had to delay the 5G rollout; the first delay came earlier in January after the FAA submitted a request on 31 December. In addition on 7 January, the FAA said the telcos have agreed to “buffer zones” where 5G signal transmitters will be switched for six months close to select 50 airports “to minimize potential 5G interference with sensitive aircraft instruments used in low-visibility landings”.

AT&T and Verizon are, however, not happy about it. AT&T’s 18 January statement says the FAA has “not utilised the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment.  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.”

Verizon said on 18 January, “(FAA) and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve to navigate 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries.”

Following the US, alarm bells were sounded in India as well. The Federation of Indian Pilots wrote to the Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia on 4 January, asking that the “DGCA and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India work together to develop a plan that enables the safe and efficient implementation of 5G mobile communications services in the C-Band. It is critical to fully understand and mitigate potential 5G signal interference with radio altimeters that are integral to aircraft safety systems”.

A 12 January press statement from telecom industry body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) director general Lt Gen. (Dr) S.P. Kochhar responded to the technical concerns, saying they are uncorroborated and that 5G and aviation can “co-exist”.

ThePrint explains what is C-Band, what is an altimeter, and what these have to do with 5G signal impacting passenger safety.

Also read: India could lag in 5G race if govt doesn’t make airwaves cheaper, says telecom industry body

What is C-Band?

C-Band is a portion of the airwave spectrum and is considered most popular for 5G connectivity. It is wave frequency ranging from about 3.3 to 4.2GHz. In the US, the 5G C-Band debate is mostly around the 3.7-3.98 GHz range.

C-Band is deemed a great fit for 5G because it offers a wide spectrum range that can be used for faster connection than its predecessor 4G.

What is an altimeter?

The radio or radar altimeter is an instrument in an aircraft to give direct information about the aircraft’s altitude when it is above land or water to other parts of the aircraft systems especially when the plane is in automatic mode.

“The radio altimeter is more precise than a barometric altimeter and for that reason is used where aircraft height over the ground needs to be precisely measured, such as auto land or other low altitude operations,” says the FAA.

Where do altimeter and 5G’s C-Band clash?

The concern is that the signal emitted by the 5G’s C-Band will interfere with the signals the altimeter receives about the plane’s altitude, which could impact operations during low-visibility landings or landings in bad weather.

“Commercial aviation radio altimeters operate in the 4.2-4.4 GHz band, which is separated by 220 megahertz from the [5G] C-Band telecommunication systems in the 3.7-3.98 GHz band,” says the FAA.

But it adds that while the “the receiver on the radio altimeter is typically highly accurate”, it might give “erroneous results” when there are “out-of-band radio frequency emissions from other frequency bands”.

“The radio altimeter must detect faint signals reflected off the ground to measure altitude, in a manner similar to radar. Out-of-band signals could significantly degrade radio altimeter functions during critical phases of flight, if the altimeter is unable to sufficiently reject those signals,” it says.

The FAA has also explained why the US is having trouble with 5G deployment whereas countries like France and Japan have managed to evade the same issue.

In the US, the buffer zones will only protect and not interfere with the last 20 seconds of flight while in France, the last 96 seconds of flight are not interfered with. The 5G power levels in the US are 2.5x higher than in France, making signal interference a problem, while the French government has also made it necessary for the 5G antenna to be tilted downward to limit “harmful interference”, unlike in the US.

(Edited by Manoj Ramachandran)

Also read: Juhi Chawla says 5G is not safe, but what do experts say? A fact-check on how the tech works

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular