How 5G Wireless Service Puts Airplanes at Risk

How 5G Wireless Service Puts Airplanes at Risk

New high-speed cellphone services have raised concerns of interference with aircraft operations, particularly as aircraft are landing at airports. The radio spectrum ranges from 3 hertz to 3,000 gigahertz and is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The Federal Aviation Administration has assured Americans that most commercial aircraft are safe, and AT&T and Verizon have agreed to hold off on installing their new cellphone antennas near airports for six months.

Concerns began when the U.S. government auctioned part of the C-band spectrum to wireless carriers in 2021 for US$81 billion. The carriers are using C-band spectrum to provide 5G service at full speed, 10 times the speed of 4G networks.

The C-band spectrum is close to the frequencies used by key electronics that aircraft rely on to land safely. Here’s why that can be a problem.

Keeping order on the spectrum

The radio spectrum ranges from 3 hertz to 3,000 gigahertz and is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The portion of the radio spectrum that carries the signals from your phone and other wireless devices is 20 kilohertz to 300 gigahertz.

You hear this when you are midway between two radio stations using the same or similar frequency bands to send their information. The signals get garbled and sometimes you hear one station, at other times the other, all mixed with a healthy dose of noise.

Bouncing radio waves off the ground

Modern airplanes use altimeters. Which calculate the time it takes for a signal to bounce back from the ground to determine a plane’s altitude. These altimeters are a vital part of automatic landing systems that are especially useful in cases where there is low visibility.

So, if an altimeter interprets a signal from a wireless carrier as the rebounded signal from the ground, it may think that the ground is closer than it is and prematurely try to lower the landing gear and do the other maneuvers that are needed to land an aircraft. If interference with wireless carrier signals corrupts and garbles the altimeter’s radio signals. The altimeter may not recognize the rebounded signal. Thus be unable to figure out how close to the ground the plane is.

The portions of the radio frequency spectrum used by airplanes and cellphone carriers are different. The problem is that airplane altimeters use the 4.2 to 4.4 gigahertz range. While the recently sold – and previously unused – C-band spectrum for wireless carriers ranges from 3.7 to 3.98 gigahertz. It turns out the 0.22 gigahertz difference between the signals may not be quite enough.

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