Wireless carriers, airlines spar over 5G expansion near US airports

Wireless carriers spent $80B for C-band space; airlines have concerns over interference

MADISON, Wis. — They are two of the great technological advances of the last 50 years.

One makes it possible for us to travel the globe and across the nation in a matter of hours. The other has given us advancements in communication that we could have only dreamed of as recently as 25 years ago.

Yet in recent months, the airline industry and the wireless communications industry have been battling over the latest technology: 5G wireless communication. The revolutionary tool will not only make phones work more quickly, as cell carriers have promised, but it also has the ability to create thousands of jobs and make broadband accessible to rural areas.

Wireless carriers paid a hefty $80 billion for precious space on a particular radio wave frequency called the C-band spectrum. Those companies plan to use the spectrum to roll out 5G wireless service, and they want to do so quickly.

Airlines, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that the new technology will interfere with radio altimeters. Those devices help pilots land planes safely when visibility is limited.

“5G is now the biggest issue facing the airline (industry). It’s remarkable to say in a world where we’re still in COVID.” Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, said.

The launch of new ultra-wideband 5G service has been pushed back twice. Now, it’s set to go January 19 using frequencies airlines say could interfere with instruments used to land the aircraft.

“Where it will be most apparent to you the traveler right at first is that we will not be able to do low visibility approaches anymore,” veteran Madison area pilot Jeff Skiles said.

Skiles knows a thing or two about challenging landings. He was seated next to Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in the cockpit of an Airbus A320 that skidded safely to a halt along the surface of the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, an event later dubbed the Miracle on the Hudson.

The landing of that U.S. Airways jet with two stalled engines left all 155 onboard alive to talk about it and made Sullenberger and Skiles heroes.

The mild-mannered Madison area resident now flies the Boeing 787 Dreamliner for American Airlines, which merged with U.S Airways in 2015. While he leaves most of the back and forth to industry leaders and lobbyists, he does think it’s an issue worth looking at more closely.

Without those radio altimeters, landings in bad weather aren’t so simple.

“The (Federal Aviation Administration), their primary purpose is to protect the safety of the traveling public, and that’s you and me,” he said. “They aren’t going to allow us to do the kind of operations that we can do today with radio altimeter data if the 5G becomes a problem, and I say if because nobody knows.”

Skiles said that unknown makes it worthwhile to hold off a bit before launching the new ultra-wideband 5G service.

Originally set to go on December 5, wireless carriers agreed to delay it until January 5th. After the initial delay, Verizon and AT&T, with the encouragement of Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, pushed back the launch date to January 19.

Based on that unknown, the FAA this week released a list of 50 airports that will have buffer zones to counter potential interference from 5G.

cell phone tower

An airplane (background) flies in the sky framed by a cell phone tower (foreground) in Madison, Wisconsin. WISC-TV/Channel3000.

Madison isn’t in line to have the ultra-wideband 5G service until late next year, so the Dane County Regional Airport isn’t on that list, but News 3 Now has learned wireless carriers have petitioned the city for roughly 50 to 60 permits for new cell towers.

“From a municipal standpoint… we are purely the gatekeepers of the permits,” Hannah Mohelnitzky, a spokesperson for Madison’s engineering department, said.

It’s a constant process for the city as wireless carriers update their technology.

“The first step is that the cell phone company decides they need to build there,” Mohelnitzky said. “The second step is finding a location and then working with the city or the municipality and the aesthetic guidelines that are in place.”

Most of the permits are for lower-tier 5G service currently offered in the city and are positioned mostly downtown where larger gatherings are held. It’s unclear if more towers will be built near the airport as the higher ultra-wideband 5G service comes to Madison in the next 18 to 24 months.

Currently, there are no plans for new towers near the airport.

“If they are going to plan on trying to apply to be closer to the airport, they would definitely have to need to go through the FAA and there’s probably a longer list of rules that they would have to abide by,” Mohelnitzky said.

Fourteen of the 18 destinations out of Madison — including O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — have 5G buffer zones, but four — Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. plus airports in Denver, Tampa and Atlanta, will not.

LIST: Airports with 5G Buffer

In Europe, 5G service has successfully operated on the C-band without any interference with aviation.

Airline industry officials, however, say it isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. The transmitters in the United States will be more powerful and operate more closely on the C-band spectrum to radio altimeters on airplanes.

“My understanding is they use slightly different frequencies, they use lower-powered transmitters on their towers, so it’s not quite the same as what we have here or what’s proposed to be distributed here in the U.S.,” Skiles said.

The airlines argue the issue needs further study.

While it may delay the launch of some wireless conveniences for major markets where the new technology is being launched, a worst-case scenario appears to be delays in travel, not major safety issues. Until the FAA and the airlines determine that there is no interference from 5G service, they may choose to limit or delay flights that may require landings where visibility isn’t the best.

Without a solution, airlines say flights will have to be delayed and canceled, impacting an estimated 32 million flyers this year.

And it may just take a little more time to figure that out, something the wireless carriers are running thin on given their massive infrastructure investment.

“You know this isn’t a done deal, it really has never been studied, and that’s really the problem,” Skiles said. “The Department of Transportation and the industry is asking the cellular industry to say, ‘Give us some time to find out if this is a problem at all, it may not be.'”