While conspiracy theorists spread wildly false claims about 5G spreading COVID-19 or causing human beings to “spontaneously combust,” the airline industry is worried about a more reasonable problem: How 5G could potentially screw with your air travel.
Earlier this month, major wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon postponed a huge, new rollout of 5G services across the United States. Why? There were some serious concerns from the airlines that this new and expanded 5G network could interfere with aircraft systems.
The date of this new 5G rollout was originally postponed until Wednesday, Jan. 19.
While the broader 5G rollout still appears to be moving ahead, AT&T and Verizon both announced today — one day before the new Jan. 19 date — that they would be indefinitely postponing 5G service around a number of airports in the country.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has warned that the new 5G network rollout could cause some potential safety issues for aircrafts.
“Because the proposed 5G deployment involves a new combination of power levels, frequencies, proximity to flight operations, and other factors, the FAA will need to impose restrictions on flight operations using certain types of radar altimeter equipment close to antennas in 5G networks,” explained the FAA on a website the agency specifically set up for the ongoing 5G issue.
The decision to delay activating new cell towers around an undisclosed number of runways came after major protest and pushback from some of the country’s biggest airlines. CEOs from American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines warned on Monday that flights could grind to a halt due to the new 5G service rollout.
“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” the CEOs said in a public statement first reported by Reuters.
The airline executives warned that this issue, if unaddressed, “could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas” as well.
In fact, a number of international airlines have already made changes to their schedules.
Air India, Emirates, Air India, Japan Airlines, and All Nippon Airlines have all announced that they have cancelled flights to the U.S. due to safety concerns over the 5G rollout.
The root cause of the issue between the airlines and the telecommunication companies: C-band.
Verizon and AT&T’s new rollout will activate the use of C-band frequencies for 5G. This frequency range was previously reserved for large TV satellites. However, in March 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) updated its rules to allow the use of C-band for future technologies, such as 5G. As PCMag points out, currently, 5G in the U.S. is no faster than the previous generation of wireless service, LTE. However, C-band can solve the problem as it can deliver faster speeds and cover larger areas.
That’s a big problem, however. The airline industry worries about potential safety issues as aircraft radio altimeters — a device that measures altitude — operate over C-Band frequencies. If 5G interferes with those signals, it could be difficult for a pilot to measure how far an aircraft is from the ground. These issues can especially be exacerbated when trying to land an aircraft during heavy rain, snow, or foggy conditions.
The Biden administration has been working with both the telecommunications companies and the airlines in order to find a compromise. According to a CNN source, negotiations are “centering on establishing a buffer at key airports, allowing roughly 90% of 5G towers to be deployed.”
Officials believe that this strategy could help avoid cancellations and keep any impact felt by travelers at a minimum.
Travel insurance company InsureMyTrip has reported an uptick in calls from customers inquiring about 5G cancellations.
“InsureMyTrip’s Customer Care Call Center has received several inquiries about this potential problem,” said the company in a statement provided to Mashable. “The planned rollout of 5G technology at midnight is causing concerns it could create major issues with flights.”
So while 5G definitely won’t make you sick, if you’re a traveler, it might cause you a few headaches over the days and weeks ahead.