5G Phones: How Serious Is the Threat to US Flights?

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By Theo Leggett
Business correspondent, BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

Ten major US airlines warn that the imminent deployment of 5G services could be disastrous.

They say the new technology could cause thousands of flights to be delayed and run the risk of leaving much of the U.S. aircraft fleet ashore indefinitely.

How could 5G disrupt US aviation?

5G is based on radio signals. In the US, the radio frequencies used for 5G are part of the spectrum known as the C band.

These frequencies are close to those used by aircraft radio altimeters, which measure the height of the aircraft above the ground, but also provide data for security and navigation systems.

The concern is that interference from 5G transmissions could prevent these instruments from working properly and cause safety issues, especially when aircraft get ashore.

How serious is the risk to aircraft?

It is potentially very serious.

In late 2020, the RTCA, an American organization that produces technical guidance on aviation issues, released a report on the subject.

He said there was “potential for widespread impacts on aviation operations in the United States, including the possibility of catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of proper mitigation.”

More recently, the U.S. aviation regulator, the FAA, warned that 5G interference could cause problems with several different systems aboard Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.

This could make it difficult to slow down the plane on landing, causing it to deviate from the runway.

How will the flight be kept safe?

Aircraft may not use radio altimeters in circumstances where there is a risk of serious interference.

But this will restrict the ability of some aircraft to land, for example, with low visibility.

Airlines for America, which represents 10 major airlines, has warned that this could cause more than 1,000 flights to be delayed or canceled in bad weather and that sometimes means that “the vast majority of the public traveling and sending will basically stay in land “.

He also suggested that a large portion of the U.S. aircraft fleet would be “considered unusable” due to operating restrictions.

Image source, Getty Images

Do other countries that use 5G share these concerns?

Not to the same degree. This is because the way 5G is being deployed varies from country to country.

In the EU, for example, networks operate at lower frequencies than US providers plan to use, reducing the risk of interference. 5G sticks can also run at lower power.

However, some countries have taken further steps to reduce potential risks.

In France, there are so-called “buffer zones” around airports where 5G signals are restricted, while antennas have to be tilted down to avoid possible interference.

What else are the US authorities doing in response?

U.S. regulators have already taken a number of steps.

The FAA has established temporary buffer zones around 50 airports, where 5G providers will limit their activities. But these are much smaller than the areas already in use in France, and U.S. transmitters will operate at significantly higher power levels.

It has also begun to identify which altimeters can be used safely in areas where 5G has been deployed, and those that are not reliable enough and will need to be replaced.

He has also identified airports where GPS systems can be used to guide approaching aircraft instead of radio altimeters.

But airlines insist this is not enough: they say the 5G network should not be activated at all two miles from the affected airports.

What have 5G companies said?

Verizon and AT&T have already delayed the launch of 5G twice and have accepted the time zones mentioned above.

Image source, Getty Images

They also noted that 5G has already been implemented in about 40 countries.

Last month, the U.S. wireless industry agency CTIA accused the aviation industry of “scaring” and warned that delaying the introduction of 5G would cause real economic damage.

What is the situation in the UK?

UK regulators and airlines don’t seem overly concerned.

In a security warning issued in December, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said that “there have been no confirmed cases where 5G interference has caused a malfunction of the aircraft system or unexpected behavior.” .

He also stressed that “different national mobile telecommunications strategies may mean that some [countries] they have a higher exposure to threats than others. ”

The UK regulator says it plans to work internationally to gather more data on the issue.

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