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5G Wireless and Airplane Flight Safety: Everything You Need to Know

5G wireless network deployments represent a massive growth opportunity for IT service providers, IT consulting firms and technology companies. But 5G wireless network deployments have also raised some airplane safety concerns in the aviation industry.

5G's potential economic upside could be massive. Indeed, 5G's deployments over the next decade will contribute $1.4 trillion to $1.7 trillion to U.S. GDP (gross domestic product), and create 3.8 million to 4.6 million jobs, according to Boston Consulting Group, which researched the market in partnership with CTIA -- an organization that represents the U.S. wireless communications industry.

5G Wireless Network Safety: FCC Perspectives

Still, some wireless industry watchers and aviation experts are concerned about 5G's safety. First, some critics wondered if 5G smartphones would turn into cancer-causing devices that emit too much radiation. Then, other critics wondered if 5G wireless would interfere with airplane navigation and communication systems that assist with bad-weather landings.

  • 5G - No New Health Risks, FCC Asserts: Amid that backdrop, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December 2019 decided to allow the rollout of new 5G wireless networks without making changes to federal safety limits for cellphone-radiation exposure, The Wall Street Journal reported at the time. Also, an FCC official in August 2019 that there was nothing unique in 5G networks that posed additional health risks. The agency has spent six years reviewing the issue and public feedback, The Journal noted.
  • 5G and Airplane Safety - Debate Continues: Meanwhile, some debate about 5G's impact on airplane safety continues. A timeline about the debate, updated regularly, is below.

5G Wireless Network Deployments and Airline Safety: The Timeline

Here is a day-by-day look at the flight safety debate involving airline safety, along with ongoing developments:

January 19, 2022: Major international airlines rushed to rejig or cancel flights to the United States ahead of a 5G wireless rollout today that has triggered safety concerns, despite two wireless carriers saying they will delay parts of the deployment. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had warned that potential 5G interference could affect height readings that play a key role in bad-weather landings on some jets and airlines say the Boeing 777 is among models initially in the spotlight. Source: Reuters.

January 18, 2022: AT&T and Verizon today accepted new 5G limits after a monthslong standoff between the cellular operators and aviation officials, who had promised to limit flights over concerns about the 5G signals’ effect on aircraft instruments. Source: The Wall Street Journal.

January 17, 2022: The chief executives of major U.S. passenger and cargo carriers warned of an impending "catastrophic" aviation crisis in less than 36 hours, when AT&T and Verizon are set to deploy new 5G service. The airlines warned the new C-Band 5G service set to begin on January 19, 2022, could render a significant number of widebody aircraft unusable, "could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas" and cause "chaos" for U.S. flights. Source: Reuters.

January 5, 2022: A target date for AT&T and Verizon to activate some 5G wireless networks in the United States. But on January 3 the target date was pushed back two weeks. The new target launch date is January 19, 2022.

January 4, 2022: In a statement about the 5G deployment delay until January 19, the Biden administration said it is "committed to rapid 5G deployment, while minimizing disruptions to air operations and continuing to maintain the world’s safest airspace." Source: The White House.

January 3, 2022: Verizon and AT&T agreed to a two-week delay in deploying C-Band wireless spectrum, averting an aviation safety standoff that threatened to disrupt flights starting this week. Source: Reuters.

January 2, 2022: The CEOs of AT&T and Verizon rejected a request to delay the planned Jan. 5 introduction of new 5G wireless service over aviation safety concerns but offered to temporarily adopt new safeguards. Source: Reuters.

December 31, 2021: U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the head of the FAA asked AT&T and Verizon Communications to delay the planned January 5 introduction of new 5G wireless service over aviation safety concerns. In a letter Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson asked AT&T Chief Executive John Stankey and Verizon Chief Executive Hans Vestberg for a delay of no more than two weeks as part of a "proposal as a near-term solution for advancing the co-existence of 5G deployment in the C-Band and safe flight operations." Source: Reuters.

December 23, 2021: Multiple updates...

  • The FAA is working with the aviation and wireless industries to find a solution that allows 5G C-band and aviation to safely coexist. While that work is underway, the FAA alerted operators that Notices to Air Missions (NOTAMs) may be issued to restrict operations in areas where 5G interference is possible. It also provides additional information about aircraft systems that could be affected. Source: The FAA.
  • An FAA Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin (SAIB) asks "radio altimeter manufacturers, aircraft manufacturers, and operators" to voluntarily participate in new testing and assessment of the altimeters featured on their aircraft "in conjunction with federal authorities." Source: Aviation Today.

December 22, 2021: The A4A, AIA and CTIA issued a joint statement about their mutual commitment to a "data-driven solution" that fulfills a "shared goal of deploying 5G while preserving aviation safety."

December 20, 2021: Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun and Airbus Americas CEO Jeffrey Knittel urged the Biden administration to delay planned deployment of new 5G wireless services, saying it could harm aviation safety. In a joint letter, the Boeing and Airbus executives asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to support postponing AT&T and Verizon's January 5, 2022 deployment of C-Band spectrum 5G wireless. Source: Reuters.

December 19, 2021: Airlines began planning for possible 5G-related flight disruptions starting on January 5, 2022. The early steps by airlines are a response to an FAA order that was issued in early December 2021. The directive outlined potential restrictions on landing in bad weather in up to 46 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas, where the new wireless service is scheduled to roll out starting January 5, 2022. Source: The Wall Street Journal.

December 17, 2021: The FAA believes the expansion of 5G and aviation will safely co-exist. The organization issued two airworthiness directives to provide a framework and to gather more information to avoid potential effects on aviation safety equipment. The FAA is working closely with the Federal Communications Commission and wireless companies, and has made progress toward safely implementing the 5G expansion. The FAA is "confident" that with ongoing collaboration the organizations will "reach this shared goal." Source: FAA.

Early December 2021: Multiple updates...

  • United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said that the 5G rollout could delay, divert, or cancel ~4% of daily flights.
  • The trade group Airlines for America projected 5G-related delays will cost passengers $1.6 billion annually.
  • Airline execs say 5G signals, which operate in a range of radio frequencies called the C-band, could mess with the cockpit systems that are used to track a plane’s altitude and help with landings in bad weather.
  • Source: Morning Brew, December 20, 2021.

November 2021: AT&T and Verizon delayed commercial launch of C-band wireless service by a month until January 5, 2022 and adopted precautionary measures to limit interference. Source: Reuters.

November 18, 2021: The CTIA issued a statement asserting that 5G service is safe, and asserted that nearly 40 countries already use the spectrum. Source: Morning Consult.

Joe Panettieri

Joe Panettieri is co-founder & editorial director of MSSP Alert and ChannelE2E, the two leading news & analysis sites for managed service providers in the cybersecurity market.