5G deployment slowed amidst aviation concerns

7th February 2022
Beatrice O'Flaherty

5G has been a contentious topic for years, critics’ accusations ranging from its ‘cancer-causing’ capabilities to unsubstantiated myths which link it to coronavirus. More recently, however, truth has been discovered in the danger of 5G. Concerns have arisen regarding the latest C-Band service which can interfere with aircraft operations and cause aviation instability.

Altering the altimeter

As explained on The Conversation, wireless signals are carried by radio waves, ranging over a spectrum of 3Hz to 3,000GHz. This is part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Phones and other wireless devices send signals over a frequency of 20KHz to 300GHz. If two wireless signals in the same area are utilising a frequency it can “garble” the noise. This is regulated in the US by the Federal Communications Commission. It assigns “lanes” or frequency spectra to mobile carriers and radio stations to prevent interference.

Airplanes use altimeters in cases of bad weather where visibility is impaired or compromised. The altimeters enable applications such as auto-land and auto-throttle. The altimeter calculates the time it takes a for a signal to bounce back from the ground which determines the plane’s altitude.

If wires are crossed and the altimeter interprets a wireless carrier signal instead, it may act too prematurely or tardily with its landing. Interference can inhibit the altimeter’s ability to recognise the rebounded signal.

Telecommunications’ dismissal

According to WCCO, many airlines have suspended flights to major US airports in response to concerns over the rollout of 5G. The telecommunications industry is said to have argued that the frequency gap of 0.22Ghz is enough for the altimeter to not interfere with communications on the ground, but understandably this is being met with the utmost caution from airlines.

It is not uncommon for emerging technologies to interfere with pre-existing electrics. As the Brookings Institution reminded their readers, electric wheelchairs began to malfunction when digital mobile phone technology was first introduced in the US:

Technological advancements in the design of powered wheelchairs, coincident with the proliferation of devices that emit electromagnetic (EM) energy (especially communication devices), have caused us to become increasingly concerned about electromagnetic interference (EMI) with powered wheelchairs. We believe that EM energy (or signals) in the environment can pose a potential hazard to users of powered wheelchairs and motorised scooters (collectively termed powered wheelchairs) by causing these devices to move unintentionally.

Excerpt from Department of Health & Human Services,

Public Health Service (US), 1994

As well as wheelchair malfunction, hearing aids began to buzz with the introduction of the international GSM digital standard. As Brookings reinforces, some of the issues were a case of life-and-death as faults were identified within pace-makers due to phone signals.

Disentangling hysteria and harm

Boston Consulting Group estimates that the deployment of 5G over the next decade is set to contribute between $1.4tn and $1.7tn to US GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and create up to 4.6 million jobs. With figures like these, it is clear that the potential for 5G to transform the tech industry as well as accelerate economic growth is beyond comprehension.

Extracting truth from claims of mass hysteria can be challenging and seeking a solution for real threats of danger may be costly and time-consuming. The permanent suspension of flights to airports situated near 5G-infrastructure is impractical and unrealistic.

On 17th January an open letter demonstrated chief executives within the aviation industry calling for 5G transmitters to not be activated within two-mile radiuses of major airports. The Independent reported that the following day, AT&T and Verizon agreed to reduce 5G deployment.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) responded to say that it is continuing to work alongside the aviation industry as airlines prove that their altimeters can work while C-band technology is enabled. This will be done on an aircraft-by-aircraft basis.

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