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5G vs. airline safety: This is why we have a government

Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

Updated: Wed, 19 Jan 2022 23:35:54 GMT

Source: CNN

The promise of 5G, the next generation of wireless technology, has excited people for a long time -- faster internet, better connections and easier access.

The potential danger of the rollout in the US is just becoming clear and is legitimately frightening -- including the possible malfunction of certain instruments on airplanes.

The concerns have led major international airlines -- Emirates, Air India, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa and British Airways -- to announce changes to some flights.

Note: Much of what is below is taken directly from the CNN reporting of Gregory Wallace, Pete Muntean and Michael Ballaban. Read their most recent report on the 5G rollout.

Cancellations are only affecting certain flights to certain airports, but the situation is frustrating to the airline industry. And the warnings about the potential for an airline calamity if the new 5G network interrupts certain airplane's altimeters should be enough to make anyone stop, sit up and say, "Now hold on a sec."

Is this a government competency problem?

The rollout has certainly been messy. President Joe Biden, asked by CNN's Jeff Zeleny about the competency of his government, argued at a Wednesday press conference that the dispute was between private entities -- airlines and telecom companies -- which are both regulated by the government.

"What I've done is pushed as hard as I can to have the 5G folks (mobile phone companies) hold up and abide by what was being requested by the airlines until they could more modernize over the year, so 5G would not interfere with the potential of a landing," he said.

A 'delinquent' situation

Critics in the airline industry aren't likely to buy that argument. The whole snafu is "one of the most delinquent, utterly irresponsible" situations Emirates president Tim Clark has seen during his career, he told CNN's Richard Quest Wednesday.

Clark said his airline was not aware of any issues with the 5G rollout until Tuesday morning, "to the extent that it was going to compromise the safety of operation of our aircraft and just about every other 777 operator to and from the United States and within the United States."

What is the deal with 5G?

US mobile phone companies paid the government $81 billion in 2021 to use C-band, a set of radio frequencies meant, as CNN's Samantha Murphy Kelly puts it, to "supercharge the internet as we know it."

She writes: "Think of it like this: If 3G is a two-lane highway and 4G is six lanes, 5G turns it into 12 lanes. It'll handle this uptick in traffic and bandwidth with no lag times, allowing, hypothetically, autonomous vehicles to process all the information they need to make life-or-death decisions in the blink of an eye, or the health care industry to help power the next generation of telemedicine and robotic surgeries."

What is the issue with 5G and airplanes?

According to CNN's report by Wallace, Muntean and Ballaban, "The Federal Aviation Administration has been worried that 5G cellular antennas near some airports — not air travelers' mobile devices — could throw off readings from some aircraft equipment designed to tell pilots how far they are from the ground. Those systems, known as radar altimeters, are used throughout a flight and are considered critical equipment. (Radar altimeters differ from standard altimeters, which rely on air pressure readings and do not use radio signals to gauge altitude.)"

What exactly did airlines not know about the rollout?

I'll let Clark, from Emirates, explain it in this rather incredible and frustrated quote:

"We were aware of a 5G issue. Okay.

"We are aware that everybody is trying to get 5G rolled out. After all it's the super cool future of whatever it may be -- communication and information flow.

"We were not aware that the power of the antennas in the United States have been doubled compared to what's going on elsewhere.

"We were not aware that the antennas themselves have been put into a vertical position rather than a slight slanting position, which then taken together compromise not only the radio altimeter systems but the flight control systems on the fly by wire aircraft.

"So on that basis we took that decision late last night to suspend all our services until we had clarity."

How did these warnings come up?

The FAA issued an urgent warning in December as the telecom companies put the finishing touches on the C-band technology. Specifically, the FAA told pilots not to use potentially affected altimeters in certain low-visibility conditions, potentially jeopardizing pilots' ability to land in some circumstances at certain airports.

Has 5G been activated in the US?

5G has already been activated to some extent. But mobile carriers, including CNN's parent company AT&T and Verizon, had planned to activate a newer, better version using C-band technology on Wednesday. The telecom companies have delayed flipping the switch on certain towers near major airports.

What's happened in other countries?

In Europe, including the United Kingdom, the switch to 5G is happening without a problem. The reason, according to CNN's Charles Riley and Joseph Ataman, is technical.

From their report: C-band uses a spectrum of radio waves with frequencies between 3.7 and 3.98 GHz.

In Europe, companies offering 5G services are using the slower 3.4 to 3.8 GHz range of spectrum.

The aviation industry is worried that US 5G service on C-band is too close to the spectrum used by radar altimeters, which is between 4.2 and 4.4 GHz. Europe's 5G has a larger buffer.

Some countries are also limiting the power going to 5G antennas near airports and requiring them to be tilted away from flight paths.

What's next?

Biden thanked Verizon and AT&T in a statement for delaying their launch of 5G near some airports as the airlines warned of dire consequences for transportation and the economy.

Now, federal authorities and wireless providers will continue to negotiate.

Asked about how long the FAA had to plan for the rollout and whether the agency had "dropped the ball," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday, "There'll be lots of time to look back and see how we got here."

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