U.S. regulators are warning aviators that a new band of 5G mobile phone service might interfere with key safety devices on aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin warning that action might be required to address potential interference with sensitive aircraft electronics. The 5G spectrum abuts radio signals used by so-called radar altimeters, which measure how close an aircraft is to the ground.
While the FAA says it is working with the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies to allow the new technology to safely coexist with aviation, the safety alert has created an unusual situation in which one agency raises concerns while another has granted its approval. What happens when the current regulations are outdated of the potential risks from new technologies deployment. Are sensitive aircraft electronics the only thing in danger from interference problems, what about the crew? What are the consequences to increase the levels of electrosmog? In this article, I will try to summarize this current situation and what type of challenge we are facing because of the lack of new protocols and safety examinations for the implementation of new technologies.
We are facing a lack of education on the 5G topic not only in public opinion but also at the government level. Most of the people that heard about problems with 5G automatically dismissed like “Oh, another non-sense conspiracy theory”, and because of that, a lot of decision-makers try to just ignore the subject and avoid talking about it. Now, there is evidence around the safety of aircraft and there is not enough attention around this. Why? Why is there no more coverage of this topic? Why if you talk too much about issues with 5G you are censored in the media?
We need to move forward and overcome this misperception about the 5G topic, and start to ask openly: How could 5G be interfering with aircraft? Is this something we should be worried about? Will this stop 5G deployment? Is there a solution? Is it possible for 5G and aviation to safely coexist? If we have issues with sensitive aircraft electronics, let’s take a look at the biological responses in the crew when they are immersed in this type of environment polluted by new higher frequencies. That is the type of question that the US regulators need to ask. And, from there, consider that we are missing something in the current safety regulations around RF and microwave signals.
So, let’s take a look one more time where we are today: Recently, Ericsson and AT&T signed a five-year deal that facilitated the US carrier’s 5G network expansion and rollout of the C-band spectrum. This deal would help AT&T achieve its ambition of covering 70-75 million people with 5G using C-band airwaves acquired by the operator earlier this year. Verizon was also deploying 5G in the C-band spectrum (4 GHz to 8 GHz) to bolster the range of their next-gen networks and offer peak download speeds of 1 gigabit per second to its customers using 5G smartphones.
But early this month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Special Information Bulletin warning aviators that a new band of 5G mobile phone service could significantly interfere with key safety devices on aircraft.
Following the FAA statement, the mobile carriers agreed to temporarily postpone their rollout of C-band 5G in order to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address those concerns surrounding the potential interference. In a statement, AT&T revealed its plans to delay its new 5G deployment until the beginning of next year while a Verizon spokesperson told CNET that it would take similar measures as the company works with the government agency.
In my opinion, and as I said before, we are entering in a new age where hyperconnectivity requires higher and strict quality standards, this is the type of issues we are going to see more frequently in the coming future. New technologies require new approaches and better understanding of electrosmog issues. Thanks to the advance and miniaturization of electronics, most sophisticated electronics sensors are more vulnerable to a type of micro interference that before were not considered as a problem. The good news is that it could be solved with a passive filtering approach using nanomagnetics science such as Spiro material, but this is not the topic of this article today.
The radiofrequency (RF) spectrum includes the set of frequencies of the electromagnetic framework ranging from 30 Hz to 300 GHz. It is divided into several ranges, or bands, and given labels, such as low frequency (LF), medium frequency (MF), and high frequency (HF), SHF VHF UHF for easier identification. Normally the RF operating in the LF spectrum are radio devices used in mines. So, normally the spectrum most often used in RF technology is the one operating between 0.6 GHz or 600 MHz and 6 GHz or 6.000 MHz.
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues licenses that permit commercial entities to have exclusive use of a frequency band in a given location. Entities include frequency modulation (FM) radio, cellular networks, television, military, and satellite communications. The competition for bandwidth and channels from internet users has increased dramatically in recent years, leading to signal issues, which we will discuss later on.
5G networks use a more diverse array of the spectrum than previous generations of mobile technology, with various frequencies serving different user groups. The 5G spectrum is a range of radio frequencies in the sub-6 GHz range and the millimeter-wave (mmWave) frequency range that is 25 GHz and above. LTE networks use frequencies in the sub-6 GHz range and are currently sharing the space with 5G traffic.
The lower frequency bands will be used for less-densely populated areas because data can travel further, though slower, on these frequencies. In order to utilize the newly-available mmWave spectrum, 5G networks will have to use the 5G New Radio technology being standardized by the 3GPP.
According to Sascha Segan, from PC Magazine, more than a half-dozen companies spent over $80 billion for C-band (all frequencies between 4 and 8GHz), a new set of airwaves that promised to fix the precarious state of American 5G. Most of the rest of the world started to auction off C-band already; in terms of the number of countries, it’s probably the most popular 5G band in the world.
This frequency had been used for satellite TV since the 1970s and is currently used for the satellite downlink for broadcast television distribution. With more advanced methods of digital encoding, satellite companies can now repack their broadcasts into the upper portion of the C-band, leaving the lower portion available for cellular companies to use.
C-band is between the two Wi-Fi bands (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and it’s slightly above the 2.6GHz band that Clearwire and then Sprint used for 4G starting in 2007, and which T-Mobile currently uses for mid-band 5G. It’s also immediately above CBRS, a band from 3.55-3.7GHz that’s currently being deployed for 4G. So its transmission characteristics are very well known.
The state of 5G in the US is pretty unstable right now. For 5G to offer an experience that’s noticeably better than 4G, it needs broad, dedicated channels, ideally 50MHz or wider. For 5G to cover entire cities, it needs to be on a frequency below about 6GHz, so it can get a decent range from towers. C-band can cover all of these needs.
Canada recently imposed restrictions on locating new 5G cell towers near the runways of large airports. Australia, France, and other nations have taken steps to limit the chances of aircraft interference. This is definitely not a coincidence.
The reason for this is radar altimeters, which are used on planes and helicopters for multiple critical safety functions, including landing when visibility is low, anti-collision warnings, and systems that warn pilots when they inadvertently get too low. Some commercial helicopter flights can’t operate without a working radar altimeter. They operate in the 4.2–4.4 GHz band, and allowing wireless carriers to start using C-band spectrum in the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz range could potentially cause problems with altimeters.
In December 2020, an article in SKYbrary already warned that aviation stakeholders were urging the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protect the operation of all radio altimeters by prohibiting the use of this auctioned bandwidth by the wireless industry unless further research and cooperation yield a solution.
The most recent FAA bulletin said there have been no confirmed reports of interference, but they highlight that their technical standards for radar altimeters were crafted years before the potential for mobile-phone companies to use nearby frequencies arose. As a result, tens of thousands of the devices are in use without any protection against adjacent radio waves.
Additionally, RTCA Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit that studies technical aviation issues, in a report last year concluded that the potential for interference created a safety hazard. It found “significant impacts throughout the approach with the potential for catastrophic effects.”
In comments to the FCC, aviation industry representatives have said that it would take years to develop new standards for radar altimeters and then replace or upgrade them.
On April 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously approved a controversial application by Ligado Networks, a U.S. satellite communications company, to deploy a terrestrial nationwide network using L-Band radio spectrum (in the 1526–1536 MHz range). Ligado’s stated intent is to offer a combined satellite and terrestrial communications network that will enable other telecommunications carriers to deploy 5G services and provide wireless internet to support industrial networks.
The Ligado case triggered a debate within the federal government about priorities for use of the radio spectrum and the framework in which spectrum decisions are made. Federal agencies including the Departments of Defense (DOD), Homeland Security, and Transportation, and many members of the Armed Services committees in both Houses of Congress object to the FCC’s decision. They argued that “loud” signals from Ligado’s high-power terrestrial transmitters will overpower “soft” signals from global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites operated by DOD, potentially disrupting military operations.
GPS device manufacturers, the aviation industry, public safety agencies, and others that rely on GPS opposed the FCC’s decision, citing potential interference with billions of GPS-reliant devices and systems. Several Members of Congress, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General supported the FCC decision, asserting that it could accelerate domestic 5G deployments and increase the competitiveness of U.S.-based manufacturers of 5G equipment.
Despite all the opposition and concerns expressed by the NTIA, DOD, and other agencies, this matter remains unresolved.
The new 5G spectrum, called C-Band, could become operational on December 5. The FCC awarded wireless network providers access to the radio bands in a February auction. “The FCC is committed to continuing to work with its federal partners to simultaneously preserve air safety and advance the deployment of new technologies that promote American consumer and business needs,” the agency said in a statement.
CTIA, a trade group representing the wireless industry, said that active 5G networks using the same spectrum band work safely in 40 countries. The group said the issue has been studied by agencies around the world, including the FCC, who’ve considered submissions from the aviation industry.
“5G networks using C-band spectrum operate safely and without causing harmful interference to aviation equipment. C-band spectrum is critical to delivering 5G service in communities large and small across the country, ensuring all Americans benefit from these next generation networks. Any delay in activating this spectrum risks America’s competitiveness and jeopardizes our ability to ensure global 5G leadership,” the CTIA claimed in a recent statement.
This problem is specifically related with the C-band spectrum (4 GHz to 8 GHz), so it’s not about all the mmWaves. It seems that the EMC tests are not being fully trustworthy, otherwise, no one would be saying there is an issue with this. On the other hand, it’s clear that we need to update our current standard tests and ways to conduct safety tests. Of course, because we are talking about aircrafts, there is an obligation to be completely sure before any deployments happen.
The electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) test proves the capability of aircrafts to operate satisfactorily in an environment with Electromagnetic Interferences (EMI). It is an involved process wherein considerable efforts towards design and test are required at various hierarchical levels. Effective EMI control on aircrafts is possible and can be achieved only if EMC exists at, firstly, the individual functional units, and, secondly, at the system level comprising of several individual functional units. Hence EMI/EMC testing for aircraft is usually done in two phases: 1. at subsystem level and 2. at system level, where all the subsystems are integrated together. The potential vulnerability with 5G deployment could appear at the system level.
But how did anyone noticed about this before? How no one saw it coming? It seems there is something wrong with the current safety tests standard procedures or they are just not good enough for these new super sensitive technologies. It’s clear that something in the process is flawed, and we need to update the procedures and optimize our standards. This is not supposed to be done just once, we should be updating tests and standards at the same rythm we update our technologies.
It’s important to note that aviation is not the only industry experiencing issues with 5G deployment, there are complaints in other several industries too. I have had the opportunity to talk to experts in the EV industry who claim they have been experiencing interference problems with the hyperconnection systems too. Even some experts in the telecom industry have acknowledged that they have been experiencing higher noise levels in the field compared to those in the past.
I have always said: “The more advanced the technology is, the more sensitive and vulnerable to potential interference it becomes.”
Lastly and more important to consider in all the safety tests to approve the implementation of new technologies like 5G, it is necesary to include the evaluation of biological responses of oxidative stress and health conditions in the users. We have to study the potential long-term effects and risks linked to the exposure to these environments full of interferences. And even when these emissions could pass the safety tests, the new approach needs to include stricter safety standards in these terms too.