February 03, 2022

Aviation safety and 5G can coexist, but stakeholders must work together

By Chairs DeFazio and Larsen

The rollout of our country’s 5G wireless network has been marked by delays, dysfunction and denial. 

It didn’t have to be this way! In 2019, aviation stakeholders, policymakers like us and safety advocates loudly warned it would be a grave mistake to turn on 5G without first ensuring that interference from these powerful networks wouldn’t adversely impact aviation safety. 

Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission ignored and even mocked these concerns and plowed ahead with this rushed rollout anyway. 

It is possible for us to responsibly deploy 5G — a worthy goal for an increasingly interconnected world economy — without compromising the safety of the flying public. Indeed, this has happened in many other countries around the world. 

However, the U.S. aviation system is the most complex in the world. We can’t afford to let it be the Wild West when it comes to deployment of 5G.

Nearly every other country that has deployed 5G has imposed some level of restrictions on its use to protect against harmful interference with aircraft. These include reducing the power levels of 5G transmissions, requiring more extensive exclusion zones at airports, ensuring 5G operates at a farther distance from the aviation frequency band or limiting the directional tilt of certain 5G broadband antennas, among other things.

Unfortunately, these same restrictions were not required in the U.S. and the voluntary mitigations that were in place were only temporary. We’re optimistic that the recently announced agreement between the administration and the telecommunications industry to delay deployment near airport runways at affected airports will increase safety and limit disruptions while the Federal Aviation Administration continues to assess the risks to aviation.

However, the fact that the telecommunications companies agreed to a voluntary delay in the first place shows an implicit acknowledgment that aviation safety concerns are real.

Here’s what we must do. First, end the intra-agency bickering that has plagued this entire process. The FCC must develop a better process for considering the Department of Transportation and FAA’s safety concerns regarding spectrum. The agencies must work together to protect the flying public from the potential dangers posed by 5G interference with radio altimeters, not at cross purposes. 

Second, the stakeholders in each industry must also come to the table in a constructive fashion. Telecommunication companies are understandably frustrated that the spectrum band they purchased has taken longer than expected to deploy. But airlines, pilots, airports and other aviation stakeholders are rightly worried about the devastating impact a potential crash would have on not just the victims and their families but on the confidence of the flying public in their ability to deliver people to their destination safely. That confidence, once shaken, can be incredibly hard to rebuild. 

We commend President Joe Biden for working to find a path forward with all interested parties to safely deploy 5G technologies while protecting aviation safety. Now, the telecommunications industry and aviation stakeholders must quickly come together on a schedule to implement long-term measures at affected airports so that 5G technologies can coexist with the aviation sector without disruptions.  

Once the DOT, FAA, FCC and stakeholders are able to build upon the most recent agreement and develop long-term solutions to ensure the safety of the traveling public, Americans will be able to board flights with confidence — and have an easier time downloading a movie for the flight, too!