How 5G cancelled your flight to the US

Bureaucratic infighting in Washington has left thousands of travellers stranded

The chief executives of the largest US airlines warned of a "catastrophic disruption" to travel and shipping operations if telecommunication firms roll out their 5G technology as planned on January 19. AFP
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The world always seems to have a soft spot for the aviation sector. Flagship carriers are heavily subsidised in many countries and when financial crises strike, airlines are at the front of the queue for bailouts. In the US, charges of preferential treatment for aviation were levied once again this week, this time by the country’s telecommunications behemoths, as a row over 5G telecoms networks comes to a head.

The telecoms operators, notably AT&T and Verizon, last year paid the US government $80 billion to secure the right to use a portion of the radio spectrum known as the C-band to roll out 5G technology, offering their customers – more than 200 million Americans – higher speeds for wireless services. The portion of C-band allocated for 5G by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is capped at 3.98 gigahertz.

The trouble, as the aviation sector sees it, is that this frequency sits perilously close – within 220 megahertz – to that used by critical airplane instruments. Studies show that while the risk of interference between 5G and avionics tools is very low, if it occurs, the consequences could be catastrophic. This week, such fears led to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) effectively barring a majority of passenger and cargo flights from operating in US airspace, for fear of interference from 5G towers located near runways. This has resulted in hundreds of delays and cancellations, including many inbound flights from major overseas carriers such as Emirates, Japan Airlines and Air India.

In the past year, US telecoms firms have twice delayed plans to roll out 5G to give the aviation sector time to find reassurance. After all, AT&T argues, 5G is used in dozens of countries around the world without issues. Airlines counter that other countries have a lower ceiling for their 5G networks (in Europe, the limit is 3.8 gigahertz), and operate towers using less power.

US telecoms operators paid the government $80bn to secure the 5G rollout

At the heart of the dispute, however, is not technology, but bureaucratic infighting. The FCC allocates portions of the radio spectrum almost unilaterally, and government departments in America are notoriously bad at talking to one another. Regulatory agencies, moreover, often side with the industries they regulate when they are pitted against each other; the 5G fight is most acutely a dispute between the FCC and FAA. The former feels that cutting-edge technology is being stifled, while the latter feels snubbed by the way the spectrum is managed.

Industry culture has played a role, too. US telecoms firms, as well as the FCC, are at the front lines of a technology battle with China, which has long embraced 5G. They are willing to push the frequency limit higher to get better quality for their tech. Aviation, on the other hand, is resisting change – and costs – particularly at a time when it has had to deal with near-paralysis from the damage of Covid-19. AT&T executives have pointed out that the aviation sector had two years’ notice of a potential 5G rollout within the C-band, and has taken no steps to adapt its instruments or practices accordingly.

The dispute has also made worse an ongoing battle in the public square between scientists and conspiracy theorists over the supposed negative health effects of 5G. There are none. But the alarmism has led the more conspiratorially minded to conflate the FAA’s concerns with their own.

As Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman, points out, the most fundamental problem is “a lack of federal leadership”. The US lacks a unified policy on radio spectrum allocation and use, or anybody tasked with getting various stakeholders to agree. The lower frequency and power limits, as well as other precautions, that other countries use to make 5G work were not a product of bureaucratic intuition or an aversion to change. They were the result of leadership and compromise.

Published: January 20, 2022, 3:00 AM