5G Could Still Affect Air Travel This Summer | Light reading

The wireless industry and the airline industry in the United States have been engaged in a careful game of calculated risk over the rollout of 5G for years. And, according to the US Secretary of Transportation, the situation could end up affecting air traffic by the end of the summer.

“There is a real risk of delays or cancellations,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the Wall Street Journal this week. “This represents one of the biggest likely-to-be-expected issues that will affect performance this summer.”

However, it’s unclear exactly how many flights could be hijacked or canceled. The publication reported that more than 80 percent of U.S. domestic planes and about 65 percent of international planes flying into the country have received updates that can prevent interference between 5G and aircraft altimeters, according to Buttigieg. These figures could change in the coming weeks as engineers continue to work to upgrade additional aircraft before the July 1 deadline.

Regardless, Buttigieg appears to be standing firm on his promise earlier this year to meet the July 1 deadline. This is the date that US wireless network operators can begin broadcasting their 5G signals across the C-band mid-band spectrum near more than 100 US airports. Such transmissions could interfere with some altimeters on older aircraft, thus forcing aircraft operators to upgrade their equipment.

Pay the bill

According to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimate earlier this year, it will cost airline operators just $26 million to upgrade older altimeters to newer ones that are unaffected by 5G transmissions in the C-band spectrum. However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) later said the cost will be more like $637.6 million.


Regardless, that price is still a small fraction of the roughly $95 billion that Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and others spent on the C-band spectrum during an FCC auction in 2021. It’s also far less than the 13, $9 billion satellite operators including SES and Intelsat are adjusting their operations to make room for 5G in C-band.

The heart of the problem, however, is that US airline operators and regulators have not sufficiently taken into account the potential of 5G operations in the C-band spectrum to affect aircraft altimeters. The result was a major public spat between the US wireless industry and the US airline industry in early 2022 when Verizon tried to roll out its 5G network in the C-band spectrum near some US airports.

Following concerns from the airline industry, Verizon and other carriers have pledged to delay the rollout of their C-band networks near airports by approximately 18 months. And they have also agreed to further changes to their networks to take the situation into account. But Buttigieg and other FAA officials agreed that aircraft operators needed to have some updates in place by July 1, a date that is rapidly approaching.

According to the WSJ, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines believe their entire fleets will be ready by the July 1 deadline. But Delta Air Lines and JetBlue may still have aircraft with outdated altimeters, in which case they could work to reroute certain aircraft to other destinations where they won’t cause problems. Meanwhile, aircraft suppliers such as Airbus, Boeing, and others will continue to upgrade their remaining aircraft with new altimeters.

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— Mike Dano, editorial director, 5G and mobile strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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