Podcast: Aviation Vs. 5G

White House-brokered negotiations helped airlines dodge a bullet—for now. Listen in as our editors explain why the aviation industry is so concerned.

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Rush transcript:

Joe Anselmo:

Welcome to the inaugural Check 6 podcast of 2022. I'm Joe Anselmo, Aviation Week’s editorial director and editor in chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.

Following crisis-like negotiations brokered by the White House, telecom giants AT&T and Verizon have agreed to temporarily delay the launch of new 5G wireless services that the FAA is concerned could interfere with radio altimeters on aircraft. Those safety concerns have prompted the FAA to issue directives that airlines say would cause widespread disruptions to their operations. The truce between aviation and telecom lasts for two weeks, but what comes after that?

Here to help explain things is Bill Carey, a senior Aviation Week editor who's been covering this saga. We're also joined by Lori Ranson, a senior airline analyst at Aviation Week's Center for Aviation or CAPA. Bill, let's start off with the basics for our listeners. This crisis has been in the making for nearly two years since the US FCC made parts of the C-band spectrum available for 5G wireless services. What are the safety concerns?

Bill Carey:

Thanks, Joe. That was quite a dramatic introduction I think, but it captures the moment. Radar altimeters, also known as radio altimeters, track an aircraft's clearance height over terrain by measuring reflected signals from about 2,500 feet above ground level. And the data that they generate is used by a range of automated systems on modern aircraft, including terrain awareness warning systems, winter detection systems, flight control systems and auto land systems. Back in February of 2020, the FCC held... actually February, 2020 was when they issued an order that freed up a portion of C band spectrum for flexible uses. And they specifically designated the band of 3.7 to 3.98 gigahertz to be available for telecommunications and other uses. They held an auction for that spectrum and that generated $81 billion. And the leading bidders were telecom companies, AT&T and [Verizon] Wireless. Their plans are to deploy 5G broadband wireless services into that spectrum. And the 3.7 to 3.98 gigahertz is about 220 megahertz spaced apart from the radio altimeter operating band of 4200 to 4400 megahertz. And there is a concern here on the part of the aviation community that there could potentially be out of band interference of 5G transmissions over those networks with aircraft flying in proximity to the 5G towers that are transmitting that signal.

Joe Anselmo:

So is this just a concern, or do people actually know that there will be an interference?

Bill Carey:

The record doesn't bear out that there have been historically major disruptions at this point. The European aviation safety agency in a response to Aviation Week has said that they have not thus far seen any major incidents of interference caused by 5G networks that have been deployed in Europe with aircraft at this point. So there is disagreement between the aviation and telecommunications industries in the United States over what the severity of the threat is at this point.

Joe Anselmo:

And you talked about drama. This has been a dramatic story, it seems changing almost daily. When we started this week AT&T and Verizon were basically telling the U.S. government to pound salt. ‘We're not going to delay this rollout.’ Then they did back down and agree to a two-week delay and also to draw these exclusion zones around 50 priority airports for the next six months. Is that enough time to figure out a solution?

Bill Carey:

If you were to listen to the telecommunications companies, they say that the aviation community and the FAA have two years to think about this, at least, since the FCC's C band order back in February of 2020. Just recently at the conclusion of the latest two week pause in the network deployments, President Joe Biden issued a statement in which he indicated that his administration had been conducting discussions among technical experts for several months now. So the discussions have been ongoing. It all came to the fore during the holiday period, as we got closer to the January 5th service start date that had been agreed to. And actually as a result of the spectrum auction, the original service date that the telecommunications companies planned on was December 5th of 2021. And they did agree to postpone that for an additional month to January 5th. And now as a result of these crisis-like negotiations that were held over the course of the holiday period, that has been extended by two weeks until January 19th.

And the telecom companies and the FAA have agreed six months beyond that to incrementally start drawing exclusion zones around critical airports that the FAA has agreed to identify for those companies, I think, as of this week. So the FAA is going to come forward with a list of 50 priority airports that will be candidates for 5G exclusion zones, at least for six months.

Joe Anselmo:

Lori Ranson, let's bring you into the conversation. The aviation industry, the airline industry, has really been waylaid in the last two weeks by COVID. Thousands of flights canceled because pilots and crews are calling in sick because they're infected with COVID. It seems like we really dodged a bullet here. What would've happened if this 5G services had been turned on, on January 5th?

Lori Ranson:

Thanks, Joe. I think the industry did dodge a bullet simply because of what you said. And they're still trying to recover from irregular operations over Christmas. Staffing shortages, weather, it's just been sort of a cascade of events and it's not one single event. And then if this had gone into effect on January 5th, you add another layer of trying to comply with airworthiness directives in terms of staffing and re-routing aircraft. Even when you're dealing with irregular weather operations, it could have just exploded into chaos for the airlines in terms of trying to get their operations back in order after a rough two weeks. And the East Coast is getting pounded by weather again and so cancellations are going to mount simply because of weather. So, I do think they really dodged a bullet on this. And interestingly enough, at a hearing near the end of last year, CEOs were expressing concern that this was a major issue coming up for them.

It seems like they've learned how to deal with COVID, although COVID is presenting just ongoing challenges. But I think airlines have concluded it's a fact of life that they're going to be dealing with COVID. It's sort of endemic now. But they were really concerned about this 5G rollout in terms of what it would do to their operations and costs. United CEO Scott Kirby told legislators that 4% of industry flights daily could be canceled as a result of these airworthiness directives that they would have to comply with. So, you can just imagine that the costs are going to mount up if this were to happen. And airlines in 2022 are facing increased costs as it is with labor expense and fuel expense. So, this added cost wouldn't come at an opportune time to say the least. So, it's good that the airlines have some breathing room. I guess the question is, what happens in six months when these offers around airports are supposed to cease and how does the industry cope and what are going to be the alternative methods of complying with these directives? So, I think those are the questions going forward and how will that affect operations? And I guess those are the things, the details, that need to be hammered out over the next few weeks or months.

Joe Anselmo:

How's the industry feeling now about this agreement that's been brokered?

Lori Ranson:

I think they seem to be satisfied for the time being. It was sort of some brinkmanship that occurred and some pressure and it wasn't exactly clear if the two parties would come to some sort of resolution. So I think they're happy for at least the next two weeks. And then we have to see what happens from there in terms of how the parties negotiate and what kind of solutions they can come up with.

Bill Carey:

I think just based on the statements that have been issued by the various associations, there's been a collective sigh of relief as a result of this agreement that was announced by the telecommunications companies, actually on the evening of January 3rd on the East Coast.

There was a briefing conducted around that time before the agreement was announced when a quote “U.S. aviation industry official” --  this was a background briefing -- said that it was clear that the telecommunications companies did not want to further postpone their network deployments. There's a lot of economic consider and competitive considerations on their parts with making 5G service available. I had seen on a social media discussion that a lot of cell phones were given as Christmas gifts this year on the anticipation of accessing the 5G networks at companies like Verizon and AT&T have been advertising and promoting. So according to this U.S. airline official, this is probably the last delay that they will agree to, this current two-week delay. Because as I mentioned earlier, the original network starts were scheduled for December 5th, 2021. They were postponed for a month to January 5th and now we're looking at a January 19th start date.

Joe Anselmo:

So why would these FAA directives have caused so much disruption? What would they have done that would've caused so many flights to have been canceled?

Bill Carey:

I can take that first, Lori. Anyway, the FAA issued two different airworthiness directives at the same time, on December 9th, I think was the publication date and the Federal Register. They effect respectively 6,834 transport commuter category airplanes, and the companion airworthiness directive for helicopters would affect 1,828 helicopters. And as a result of these airworthiness directives, certain flight operations they conduct would be prohibited. Those types of operations that require radio altimeter data when in the presence of 5G C band wireless transmissions. And that includes the use of approach and landing procedures in low visibility conditions. And that again is because radio altimeter data is integrated with a lot of different systems on the aircraft and would affect instrument landing system approaches as well as required navigation performance approaches.

And on the business aviation side too, I think business aviation has really been at the forefront of certifying landings using head up displays and enhanced flight vision systems down to touchdown on the runway. Those types of operations also would be prohibited with when in the presence of 5G wireless transmissions. Because according to the FAA, you could not depend on your radio altimeter data in those situations.

Joe Anselmo:

Lori, why did this come down to the wire like this? The FAA awarded this spectrum in February, 2020. Have people just not been listening to the airline industry's concerns?

Lori Ranson:

I think the industry has kind of relied on its lobbying and regulatory authorities to sort of hash this out because, correct me if I'm wrong, Bill, but I know that FAA expressed some concerns at least two years ago, or even longer than that, in terms of, this could have the potential for interference and it could be a really big safety issue. So I think the airlines just thought it was going to be probably settled in a regulatory framework. And obviously over the last few years, have had other things to worry about. I want to just add to Bill's point, just some practical sort of scenarios. You think about RNP, you think about Alaska Airlines and Seattle, they use RNP a lot in Seattle for weather conditions. So if they couldn't use their equipment, then you're going to experience go arounds.

Think about fog at O'Hare. Right now O'Hare is the United's largest hub based on departing frequencies. If you have fog in O'Hare and you have to go around because you can't use your systems and land on another airport, just think about the disruptions that would cause, and just look at the weather now. So I think that a solution needs to be found that's going to satisfy everyone. And hopefully that will be the case, but only time will tell. And so, I don't think it's the end of the saga here. I don't know, Bill if you agree or not?

Bill Carey:

No, I do agree. This was not held secret until a few weeks ago. This goes back, as you've mentioned, a couple of years. There have been industry expressions of concern over potential interference with radio altimeters that I can recall writing about, I think, a year ago or so now.

And this also very closely resembles the similar controversy over the Ligado Networks situation, when the FCC back in 2020 awarded Ligado Networks pieces of the spectrum in the L Band to deploy 5G services. But that was a concern because of the proximity of those frequency allocations to GPS reception, and in that case, drew a heavier response from the Department of Defense, as well as some of the current aviation industry interests that you're seeing kind of raising the alarm now.

But again, this is not new. It is a bit of a technical issue. So I think it's been kind of deliberated in the background, so to speak, in amongst standards organizations and technical experts. But now when we see the potential impact on regular flight operations during the course of a really devastating pandemic for the airline industry, now it's drawing a lot more attention than it did previously.

Joe Anselmo:

Bill, we've got to wrap up, but I wanted to ask you one final question. You've written, obviously this is not just affecting airlines, you mentioned business aviation. It's also helicopters, general aviation, which has a lot of older aircraft. It's impact across the board for aviation.

Bill Carey:

It is a concern for some older, smaller, general aviation aircraft that may have radio altimeters. Some of the more basic aircraft would use the parametric pressure altimeters as an altitude reference.

And I think it's especially a concern for helicopters. And Helicopter Association International has responded to that and they reacted to the latest two-week agreement by saying, ‘That's great about the exclusion zones around 50 major airports,’ and they say that the telecom companies have offered some protections around public use heliports, but there are only 55 of those in the United States. And I'm reading from the HAI here. "That number is dwarfed by the estimated 6,533 to 8,533 helicopter landing sites in more than 4,000 being private use heliports that are co-located with hospitals." And hospitals are in urban situations where that might be more dense spectrum traffic from 5G systems. So I think it's particularly a concern for lower flying helicopters as it is for the airline industry.

Joe Anselmo:

It certainly sounds like that is not the last we will hear about this. I know, Bill, you've been keeping readers of Aviation Daily and Aviation Week magazine up to speed, and will continue to. Bill, Lori, thanks to both of you for your time and for your insights on this moving story.

That is a wrap for this week's Check 6 podcast. You can subscribe to the podcast in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Stitcher and Spotify.

A quick announcement, nominations are open until January 31st for Aviation Week's annual program excellence awards, which shine a spotlight on the industry's best executed projects. For more information, go to aviationweek.com/program-excellence. That's aviationweek.com/program-excellence. Thank you for your time. Have a wonderful weekend and stay safe.

Joe Anselmo

Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Bill Carey

Based in Washington, DC, Bill covers avionics, air traffic management and aviation safety for Aviation Week. A former daily newspaper reporter, he has covered the commercial, business and military aviation segments as well as unmanned aircraft systems. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2017, he worked for Aviation International News and Avionics and Rotor & Wing magazines.

Lori Ranson

Lori covers North American and Latin airlines for Aviation Week and is also a Senior Analyst for CAPA - Centre for Aviation.