US telecom operators AT&T and Verizon had started their 5G services on Wednesday, before deferring for the towers in the close vicinity of major US airports. Thankfully, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the same day came up with a new note to address a fresh list of aircraft that could operate in the buffer zones in the US. The Boeing 777 is on that list, bringing relief to a few airlines, including Japan Airlines and Air India, which immediately announced that they would resume their services to US.
Aircraft radar altimeters operate within 4.2-4.4 GHz, the lower half of which falls under the 5G C-band range of 3.7-4.2 GHz. This can alter the functions of the aircraft while descending. An aircraft communication system is at its peak, operating complex mathematics during landing. A single mistake could result in a catastrophe. Some of the actions that are impacted with the interference include deployment issues of thrust reversers, interruption in radio altimeter data, auto throttle system and configuration warning.
Most of these functions are crucial when aircraft flies, especially when an aircraft approaches an airport in low- light conditions or snowfall. These factors help the aircraft to make a safe landing. The sophisticated aircraft communication network is also a critical infrastructure as it communicates with air traffic control at all times and has interdependent functions.
For the Boeing 777 and Boeing 787, two of the most modern long-range aircraft bought and leased by airlines, the impact of 5G was highlighted for some time by regulators, airlines and pilot bodies. The airlines collectively also wrote a letter to Joe Biden recently, seeking his intervention in the matter. In the last one year, efforts to resolve the matter haven’t been successful. Even the airlines have not been really warned to be prepared – if any preparedness was possible.
Emirates, operating a large number of Boeing 777s to the US and connecting various destinations through its hub in Dubai, has already indicated that the relevant authorities should have warned the airline earlier. Then they could have presumably worked out a solution, as the current disruption has affected their service.
Interestingly, while the Federation of Indian Pilots (FIP) has stated that 5G can hamper normal aviation traffic, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has dispelled fears, stating that there is a considerable gap – of 530 MHz – in the frequencies between 5G and radar aviation, and that they won’t overlap. Indian aviation and telecom sector regulators – Directorate General of Civil Aviation and (DGCA) and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) – should engage with the airlines and airport authority to be on the same page to address the issue.
As rigorous 5G trials are expected to be launched in India by the end of this year, careful planning around network deployments and management has to be undertaken to factor in concerns that could arise from critical sectors apart from aviation. Clearly, this is a technical issue that should have got attention before being implemented by taking a total solution approach, even if it meant a ‘give and take’ approach by the respective industries.
Hence, now with wide disruptions, the time is ripe to foster a workable model leading to a lasting solution. In the US, the telecom industries have suggested some buffer zones to block the 5G network in various cities to support aviation service. But this is a temporary solution that will require a more accurate approach to deal with future aspects of telecommunication networks. 5G would be unstoppable in airports, as consumer demands will push it for deployment. Which is why in aircraft designs, manufacturers have to find a way to allow sensors and altimeter functioning to be smooth.
There has to be a review of the frequency bands for 5G networks as well as those of aircraft altimeters so that interference is eliminated. Regulators and industries have to work together to make this happen.
The writer is a defence and cybersecurity analyst