FAA sets 5G flight restrictions to avoid possible hazards from new wireless service

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The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday outlined flight restrictions that will take effect in January when a new 5G wireless service makes its debut, even as regulators work with telecom and aerospace companies to avoid U.S. air traffic disruptions. 

The FAA order pertains to a type of 5G slated to go live Jan. 5. It would restrict pilots from operating automatic landing and other cockpit systems commonly used in poor weather, to avoid possible interference from 5G in the spectrum range known as the C-band. 

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The FAA and aviation industry groups have said the new 5G service could interfere with radar or radio altimeters, gauges that measure the distance between aircraft and the ground. Information from those devices feeds a number of cockpit safety systems used to land planes, avoid crashes and prevent midair collisions.

The airports that would face potential disruptions will be identified in future notices, according to the FAA order, known as an airworthiness directive. Regulators and technical experts have been working to address concerns about potential safety risks to resolve a long-running dispute between the aviation and telecom industries. 

A passenger waits for a Delta Airlines flight at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.  (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File / AP Newsroom)

"The FAA plans to use data provided by telecommunications providers to determine which airports within the United States have or will have C-band base stations or other devices that could potentially impact airplane systems," the agency's order said.

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Data pertaining to 5G signals' power levels and location are expected to help air-safety regulators limit disruptions, current and former government officials have said. Aviation industry groups have warned of potentially "debilitating impacts" from such flight restrictions, saying in a Nov. 18 letter to the FCC: "Air cargo and commercial air travel will likely cease at night and in any weather where the pilot cannot see the runway."

The FAA said it was coordinating with the Federal Communications Commission and wireless companies and has made progress "toward safely implementing the 5G expansion."

The FCC said it looks forward to further guidance from the FAA that takes into account a recently proposed solution from telecom companies.

FAA PLANS WARNINGS TO PILOTS, AIRLINES OVER NEW 5G THREAT TO COCKPIT SAFETY SYSTEMS

AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. previously agreed to delay by a month their activation of the fifth-generation wireless service, which provides faster broadband speeds for a range of mobile devices. The service had previously been due to go live Dec. 5, but the companies agreed to hold off because of the FAA's aviation safety concerns.

In November, the telecom companies offered to limit the power of certain 5G base stations as an additional safeguard. On Monday, a representative from the Aerospace Industries Association told the FCC in a letter the carriers' proposed limits were "inadequate and far too narrow" to address flight safety concerns.

The U.S. telecom industry has maintained that the new 5G service doesn't pose a safety threat to aircraft, pointing to other countries' experience with similar wireless services. A Verizon spokesman said the company is on track to reach 100 million Americans with the new service in the first quarter of 2022 and was confident the FAA's further analysis will find C-band service "poses no risk to air safety."

An AT&T spokeswoman said the carrier recognizes the "paramount importance of air safety, and our use of the C-band spectrum will not undermine that imperative."

In its order, the FAA said it determined that "no information has been presented that shows radio altimeters are not susceptible to interference" by the new 5G service. The FAA's order said it affected an estimated 6,834 U.S.-registered airliners and other aircraft. A similar FAA order, also issued Tuesday, affects an estimated 1,828 helicopters.

Regulators in some countries have imposed restrictions. France has put in place some limits on 5G operations at certain airports, for example, while Japan restricts certain cell sites near aircraft approach routes. 

AT&T, VERIZON TO DELAY 5G ROLLOUT OVER FAA’S AIRPLANE SAFETY CONCERNS

Airlines for America, an industry trade group representing major U.S. passenger and cargo carriers, said it would continue working with aviation and telecom regulators "to enable the rollout of 5G technology while also minimizing any disruption" to U.S. air traffic.

Boeing said in a memo issued to airlines that operate its aircraft that it would hold meetings on Wednesday to lay out the company's "plans and recommendations for short-term and long-term mitigations of 5G cellular interference."

A Boeing spokeswoman declined to comment on the airline memo but said the plane maker was collaborating with aviation authorities, airlines and industry groups to "ensure the continued operational safety of aircraft throughout the aviation system world-wide."

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