Conspiracy theories on the impact of 5G have so far been largely confined to the fringes of society. But they spilled over into a very real area of the economy in early January as major U.S. airlines pushed back against the 5G rollout.
In the end, disaster was averted and no airplanes fell out of the sky but the issue remained clouded in uncertainty. Is 5G really a threat to airline safety? And if it is, why did this happen only in the U.S. while in other regions — notably in Europe — the aviation industry has been relaxed about the technology?
The answer is not that the U.S. has the home of baseless conspiracy theories, from QAnon to claims on the 2020 election.
Chief executives of prominent passenger and cargo airlines such as Delta, United, and Southwest took action because they had genuine fears that the 5G C-Bank rollouts by AT&T and Verizon would compromise airline safety.
Central to the U.S. issue were decisions by regulator the Federal Communications Commission, in auctioning radio spectrum, that C-Band was safe to use in the vicinity of airports because they had set a buffer been the spectrums used by airlines for safety and the 5G bands being rolled out by telcos.
Rollout on hold
The telcos acted on this and prepared for their rollouts, only to be asked by U.S. transport czar Pete Buttigieg and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to delay turning on their C-Band near several airports while they continued to examine the issue.
The FAA then cleared a number of airliners to fly into major airports where pilots consider the 5G interference to be dangerous, and currently, this has been extended to nearly 80% of the U.S. commercial airline fleet.
Understandably, the telcos were annoyed. After all, they thought they had the green light and several dozen countries have already deployed the C-Band 5G without any incidents with aviation.
“While the airline industry faces challenges, 5G is not one of them”
In France, telcos have reduced the power of 5G near airports and this was the offer the U.S. telcos came back with.
“The laws of physics are the same in the U.S. and France,” the chief executives of the two telcos wrote in an open letter to regulators.
“If U.S. airlines are permitted to operate flights every day in France, then the same operating conditions should allow them to do so in the United States.”
There is a lot at stake here. The U.S. airline industry is struggling after the pandemic and also had to cancel more than 10,000 flights since Christmas Eve due to bad weather.
The telcos, meanwhile, have invested heavily in their 5G rollouts in what is a highly competitive industry.
While the problem seems to have been defused for the moment, some issues will linger.
The telcos will be able to proceed with their C-Band launches, but their services may be moderated after the airlines submit a list of several dozen airports where they think the power of 5G should be reduced.
Ongoing discussions will be held by stakeholders on the safety issues of 5G near airports, but ultimately the telcos will be able to decide if changes should be made because they are operating under agreements made with the regulators some time back when they paid USD80 million for significant chunks of C-Band spectrum.
Meanwhile, there will be a survey of airlines to understand how many planes and flights the 5G rollout could impact, and the regulator will allow planes with up-to-date altimeters to fly near high-power 5G. Planes with older altimeters will have the ability to land in low visibility conditions restricted.
How this plays out remains to be seen. Perhaps the airlines will find that their fears are misplaced and that the buffer between the 5G band and the aviation spectrum is sufficient. Or perhaps they will launch a massive lobbying campaign to restrict or even rescind aspects of the 5G rollout, upon which so much depends beyond the bottom line of AT&T and Verizon.
In addition to consumer applications, there is a whole next generation of business use cases for 5G which businesses may be prepared for and which might be at stake.
“While the airline industry faces challenges, 5G is not one of them,” said Verizon chief Hans Vestberg in a company memo at the height of the crisis.
The airlines had warned that “the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt” if 5G protective measures were not taken. In the new economy, the same could be said about the economic impact if 5G rollouts cannot go ahead.
Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and the NextGenConnectivity editor. He remains fascinated with how businesses reinvent themselves through digital technology to solve existing issues and change their entire business models. You can reach him at [email protected].
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