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View: Why are airlines pushing back against telecom's ambitious 5G expansion plans?

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View: Why are airlines pushing back against telecom's ambitious 5G expansion plans?

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Why the rollout of 5G in geographies such as the US and India is facing resistance from airline carriers, manufacturers and associated regulatory bodies? The key point of contention between airlines and telecom operators is in relation to almost overlapping or very close spectrum bands that could impact aviation radio frequencies.

View: Why are airlines pushing back against telecom's ambitious 5G expansion plans?
As telecom companies prepare to make the shift to the 5G spectrum, they find themselves facing stiff resistance from airline carriers.
Since cellular communication took the world by storm in the 1980s, almost every decade has heralded the arrival of a new network generation. We have come a long way from the voice-calls-only 1G to the almost-ubiquitous 4G networks of today that power everything from videos to games to social media. The 5G network, which is the latest evolution of cellular technology, is expected to drive next-generation digital paradigms such as VR, AR, AI, industrial IoT and self-driving cars.
Telecom operators in most European countries have either already made or are making the transition to 5G. However, in many other geographies including India and the United States, the process is still in its initial phases.
And it is facing stiff resistance from airline carriers, manufacturers and associated regulatory bodies.
5G versus safe flights?
On January 4, 2022, the Federation of Indian Pilots (FIP) wrote a letter to the Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya M. Scindia. The intent of the letter: An appeal to the government to force the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to work together to ensure that the rollout of 5G technology takes the safe and smooth functioning of flights into account.
The letter is just the latest chapter in a wide-ranging debate that has been taking place between airlines and telecom providers across the world. It also comes right on the heels of a decision by Verizon Communications and AT&T to delay the 5G rollout in the US by a couple of weeks from the pre-stipulated date of January 5, 2022. The wireless service providers postponed the launch in face of protests from airlines and pressure from the government authorities.
According to a letter to the US government sent by aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, 5G interference could seriously impede their aircraft’s ability to operate safely. According to the manufacturers, had the Federal Aviation Administration implemented its current set of guidelines for 5G rollout in 2019, over 345,000 passenger flights and 5,400 cargo flights would have been affected to the point of being delayed, diverted, or canceled.
In the US specifically, the C-band spectrum for 5G providers runs between the 3.7-3.98Ghz range. This is close to the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz international standard reserved for radio altimeters installed on airplanes.
Measuring the problem
For the uninitiated, the altimeter is a device that helps measure the height of the airplane from the terrain immediately below it. It is a critically important component that helps pilots maintain situational awareness, monitor altitude, and land. Altimeter inputs are also used by other aircraft setups, such as the collision avoidance system. Contenders of the 5G rollout argue that the small buffer between the 5G spectrum and that used by airplane altimeters could lead to cases of altimeter anomalies, forcing pilots to rely on visual approach and potentially leading to unsafe landings.
In India, auctions for the 5G spectrum were supposed to take place in 2021. However, a variety of factors including severe COVID-19 outbreaks across the country led the government to postpone it to this year. The auctions are now expected to take place in the April-May time frame with the 5G launch tentatively expected to take place on August 15, 2022.
While the government has yet to provide clarity on the spectrum that will go up on auction, most telecom providers in the country are testing their 5G capabilities on the 3.5 GHz band. However, elements from the Indian aviation industry including the 6000-member Federation of Indian Pilots, have raised questions around whether the buffer between the 5G and aviation bands is sufficient to prevent any mishaps.
Proponents argue that over 40-countries are already using the 5G spectrum without hindering flight operations. In the US, Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker stressed this point while speaking to Morning Consult last year:
“In some of these countries, 5G signals operate in spectrum adjacent to aviation equipment. U.S. airlines fly in and out of these countries every day. If interference were possible, we would have seen it long before now”
However, telecom operators in these countries have taken steps that include reduction of power levels, creation of safe zones, and changing antenna directions to minimise interference with aviation equipment.
Crisscrossed bandwidths
With regards to spectrum auction and allocation, government agencies such as the TRAI, have had a busy year. Earlier, TRAI had recommended making the spectrum between 3.3 to 3.4GHz and 3.425 to 3.6GHz available for commercial 5G services, excepting the 3.4 to 3.425GHz band that is utilized by ISRO.
Another important point to note is that the Indian Ministry of Defence also uses the 3.3 to 3.4GHz band. Taking the concerns of airline operators into account and attempting to create a larger buffer from the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz utilised by airplane altimeters could further cut into the already thin slice of spectrum available to telecom operators for commercial 5G applications.
As the country prepares for an imminent network upgrade with 5G-enabled smartphones starting to trickle into the market, it will be interesting to see the government’s approach to resolving airlines and pilots' concerns while also providing telecom players with enough bandwidth to operate their 5G networks without disruptions. Assuming that the government gives enough credence to FIP’s concerns and decides to act on its appeal to develop enabling standards and systems for safe deployment, the country and its telecom operators may have to wait a while longer for ubiquitous 5G coverage.
—Mudit Mohilay is a marketing professional, author and writer. Views expressed are personal
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