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The Federal Aviation Administration’s Embarrassing Attempt to Put 5G Wireless on ‘Airplane Mode’

[On January 18, 2022, major U.S. wireless carriers agreed to restrict 5G wireless within 1 mile of airports for six months while the Federal Aviation Administration certifies that the C-band signals used for 5G will not interfere with the altimeters on certain jet aircraft. The delay in 5G, ostensibly for safety reasons, caused alarm and the cancellation of flights worldwide, even in countries that have 5G, although the Federal Communications Commission has said there is no problem with interference and 5G is operating safely in dozens of countries, as AEI’s Bret Swanson discusses below. – Ed.]

In early 2022, the nation’s wireless carriers are scheduled to begin activation of the C-band, a huge new chunk of spectrum that will augment existing deployed mobile spectrum by around 50 percent. It’s a major milestone. The C-band is the centerpiece of 5G wireless policy and networks. Some Americans may have wondered when they’d truly feel the impact of 5G, and this is that moment.

Not so fast, say the airlines. After nearly 15 years of planning by the wireless industry and consultations with airlines, on the eve of the C-band rollout the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) threw a wrench into the works. Citing a new technical report, the FAA told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration that if C-band radios are deployed, planes might fall from the sky. The mobile firms agreed to discuss the matter, but the FAA is pushing back, causing potential delays in the new 5G networks.

Could planes really be in jeopardy? Is the foundation of 5G really in peril? Didn’t anyone think of this before? What is going on?

We’ve spilled many pixels over the past few years on the importance of the C-band. When the FCC completed the spectrum auction in January of this year, it was a huge achievement. The 280 megahertz (MHz) of airwaves is a giant contiguous swath. At 3.7–3.98 gigahertz (GHz), it resides in a sweet spot for 5G small-cell networks, offering both good coverage and high data rates. The auction blew away expectations, garnering a record $81 billion in winning bids—around twice Wall Street projections.

The FAA, however, now says at the last minute that C-band radio emissions could, in a worst-case scenario, interfere with radar altimeters. These standard altimeters operate worldwide in the 4.2–4.4 GHz band. Airplane altitude measurement is obviously crucial; all people and nations agree.

Nearly 40 nations already have networks operating in the mobile C-band frequencies, and planes are doing just fine. What’s more is that the US has an extra layer of protection in the form of a wider guard band—more than 200 MHz of empty space between the mobile radio and airplane frequencies. This safety buffer is far more than most nations employ. The US military also employs radar technologies close to the altimeter band that pump out radio waves at 10,000 times the power of the commercial mobile C-band radios. Again, no problems.

The wireless and aviation industries—and their regulators—have discussed these technical matters for years, and the resolution enshrined in the FCC’s C-band auction rules was more than sensible. The aviation industry has even been boasting about the possibilities 5G wireless will bring to flight operations.

Many seasoned observers think the aviation industry is really looking for Washington (i.e., taxpayers) to buy them new altimeters to replace the old ones now operating in most of the fleet. Delay 5G with scary “falling planes” rhetoric, then back off when the new equipment is promised. Delays aren’t free, however. 5G is now, with the internet, a fundamental platform for the entire economy. Delays in the most important component of 5G—this huge addition of new spectrum and thus capacity and capability—would push back all kinds of economic activity in smartphones, transportation, smart infrastructure, advanced manufacturing and construction, and much more.

The FAA’s antics also threaten to upend well-functioning spectrum auctions and investment incentives. Do we think the mobile carriers would have ponied up $81 billion for spectra they can’t use?

The mobile internet has been the most powerful and successful facet of the U.S. economy over the last decade. Putting 5G on “airplane mode” would be economically devastating.

Originally published by American Enterprise Institute. Republished with permission.

Bret Swanson
Bret Swanson
Bret Swanson is a nonresident senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute.

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