Aviation and telecom industries spar over 5G rollout

The issue at hand is flight safety. The US does not have easy answers. The Indian telecom sector is confident of averting a crisis.

The aviation and telecom industries seem to be on a collision course in the US over 5G. The bone of contention is a potential overlap in radio frequency spectrum that may endanger flight safety. Recently, a clutch of airlines, including Emirates, Air India and British Airways cancelled over 25 flights to the US in view of upcoming rollout of 5G services by carriers Verizon and AT&T.

5g, air safety, airlines, telecom
Many countries are investing in 5G networks for faster connectivity. Their impact on the larger eco system remains to be seen. Image: Shutterstock/metamorworks.

The airlines fear that the C-Band spectrum of 3.7-3.98 GHz deployed by 5G networks in the US is uncomfortably close to the 4.2-4.4 GHz spectrum used by planes’ radar altimeters. The contention is that signal interference may come in the way of safe flight landings in tough weather conditions. To avert a crisis, a temporary truce has been arrived at between the telecom and aviation sectors. The 5G carriers have agreed to delay rollout of 5G services around key airports until a satisfactory solution is arrived at.  

Correspondingly, close to 80 per cent of aircraft have been allowed to fly, with the rest — aircraft flown by smaller regional airlines — being indefinitely grounded until they can modify their altimeters. But that is easier said than done. It can cost billions to modify these devices. The airlines want the US government or carriers to take on the cost. Verizon and AT&T have refused to budge, citing the USD 80 billion that they have paid out to acquire C-Band spectrum. They also blame US policy makers for not preparing well enough for 5G rollout, when 40 other countries have.

5g, air safety, airlines, telecom
Airlines fear that the signal from C-Band spectrum deployed by American 5G networks will interfere with radar altimeters of aircraft attempting to land in adverse weather conditions. Image: Shutterstock/Steve Heap.

Indian telecom operators rule out conflict

Meanwhile, India is set to have 5G rollout within two years. Domestic aviation companies have expressed apprehension to the Indian government, citing the US scenario. But both Indian telecom industry and regulators feel that these concerns are largely unfounded. They maintain that Indian 5G standards are based upon best practices adopted in Europe, South Korea, and Japan.

Moreover, the C-band spectrum to be deployed by Indian 5G operators lies in the range of 3.3-3.67 GHz, providing a cushion of more than 500 MHz vis-a-vis airline radar altimeter spectrum. The crisis is acute in the US because the corresponding difference in frequencies is under 250 MHz.

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