How did the Planned 5G Rollouts Nearly Cause Turmoil within the US Airlines?
- Major U.S. airlines warn of an imminent crisis as AT&T and Verizon prepare to deploy the new 5G service in the US in January 2022.
- The FAA has forced the FCC and wireless network carriers to delay the deployment to avoid interference with altimeters.
- This last-minute protest by the FAA and airline companies helps avoid a 5G airline disaster that could have weakened the supply chain even further.
The introduction of 5G cellular networks has the potential to revolutionize the U.S. economy. However, in the past few months, multiple factors have derailed the rollout of 5G technology across the country; the latest being a last-minute complaint by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that made the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and major wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon postpone the launch of this service.
Experts have stated that the U.S. under President Biden’s administration averted a catastrophic “5G-airlines” crisis that could have left thousands of passengers stranded and caused immeasurable disruptions to supply chains.
However, the biggest question is why is this an issue only in the U.S.? 5G networks are being deployed around the world in multiple locations, but where exactly did the U.S. go wrong?
The motive behind the complaint
In early 2021, the U.S. sold a majority of the mid-range 5G spectrum in the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz range on the C-band spectrum to AT&T and Verizon for an estimated $80 billion. Following this purchase, both companies were ready to roll out their 5G networks in December 2021.
However, the FAA raised objections to the rollout after UPS and FedEx, two of the biggest logistics companies, sent a letter concerning the frequencies used in the C-band spectrum and requesting to block the rollout of 5G to towers situated within two miles (3.2 km) of airport runways.
The FAA warned that the deployment of 5G could interfere with the functioning of aircraft, since the planned 5G services use frequencies (3.7 to 3.98 -GHz) in the C-band radio spectrum that are close to those used by altimeters in an aircraft (4.2 to 4.4 GHz).To avoid this issue, both AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay the deployment until January 5, and then later to Jan. 19 2022.
However, even with this delay and FAA’s clearance of aircraft using two models of radio altimeters, more than 2,500 U.S. flights suffered delays, with more than 1,600 cancellations. If 5G had gone live as planned, the consequences might have been disastrous as thousands of passengers would have been stuck at airports, while tons of goods would have sat idle, worsening the supply chain crisis, and impacting a wide range of industries.
How did this become an issue in the U.S.?
Whilst the U.S. is struggling with 5G rollouts, the European Union (E.U.) did it without any impact on the aviation industry.
In 2019, the EU established specifications for mid-range 5G frequencies in the 3.4 to 3.8 GHz band. The EU has already sanctioned this bandwidth, and countries such as France (3.6 to 3.8 GHz) are witnessing no interference with aircraft altimeters.
This is one of the primary reasons (the other being the ongoing power struggle between the FAA and the FCC) why the U.S. is facing disruptions. Since the FAA and the aviation industry were aware of the 5G deployment, AT&T and Verizon have blamed them for failing to come up with mitigation plans as the other 40 nations did.
What is being done and what lies ahead
The FAA has established buffer zones around 50 airports with wireless transmitters near runways, including those in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Airlines, however, believe that this will not be enough to avoid the challenges.
In addition, discussions among wireless carriers as well as the airline industry and federal regulators are ongoing. Until the resolution of those negotiations, 5G rollouts are on hold. For now, the FAA has stated that around 45 percent of the US commercial jet fleet has been cleared to conduct low-visibility landings at several airports where the 5G C-band will be deployed.
In the coming days, it is expected that the FCC and FAA will improve coordination on the spectrum management to avoid damaging impacts on the airline industry, supply chain, vaccine distribution and the broader economy.