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Lawmakers Upset at Airline Regulators for Conflicts During 5G Wireless Rollout

February 4, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
<strong></img>Lawmakers Upset at Airline Regulators for Conflicts During 5G Wireless Rollout</strong>
Passenger flights land and take off at Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, Wed., Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Warnings continued Thursday from the airline industry about how the rollout last month of 5G telecommunications threatens aviation safety while lawmakers tried to figure out a solution.

The newest wireless transmitters near airports could interfere with radio signals for altimeters, which monitor airplanes’ altitude and often are linked to braking systems, according to some pilots. The result could be crashes during airplane landings.

By Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged receiving more than 100 pilot reports of possible interference from 5G signals since the mobile phone service started two weeks ago. 

“We are using our established safety-reporting systems to look into a handful of reports of possible 5G interference,” the FAA said in a statement. “So far, none of these reports have been validated.”

The FAA’s assurances did nothing to prevent members of Congress at a hearing on Thursday from hurling blame at the agency for allowing 5G to become any degree of a danger for aviation safety.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., told about Alaska Airlines being forced to cancel about 30 flights last month in his home state of Washington because of hazards created by a combination of bad weather and 5G signal interference.

He described the FAA’s lack of preparation and the 5G rollout as “coming together in a perfect storm of technology.”

The bottom line question the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation is trying to answer is, “What can we do to help aviation and 5G coexist,” asked Larsen, who chairs the subcommittee.

5G is the fifth generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks. Telecommunications companies are using it to replace 4G networks that connect most cellphones now.

FAA officials admit that they have known since 2015 the planned installation of 5G networks could interfere with radio altimeters within two miles of airports because of similar bandwidth for their signals.

Several lawmakers asked why the FAA did not intervene earlier to prevent the potentially dangerous overlapping of signals.

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said the FAA could have joined with the Federal Communications Commission to coordinate a smooth transition to 5G. Leading proposals for avoiding problems include new bandwidth standards and filters for radio transmitters and receivers that block unwanted signals.

“In this case, we saw agencies … sitting there waiting,” Graves said. “It just simply didn’t work.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said any solution so far was a “temporary hold” until a permanent remedy can be found.

The FAA has won agreement from telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T to avoid turning on their 5G towers within two miles of some airports, reducing power for transmissions near other airports or limiting the directional tilt of antennas to aim them away from runways. 

DeFazio expressed frustration that the temporary measures were needed when the FAA and FCC could have cooperated earlier to eliminate the need for them.

“We cannot have conflicting industries,” DeFazio said.

Steve Dickson, the FAA’s administrator, said telecommunications companies should get most of the blame.

He said the FAA started asking the companies for the data the agency needs to begin the regulation process at least three years ago. Instead, they waited until late 2021 to turn over the information.

The FAA was nearly powerless to force their compliance, Dickson said.

“We did not have the data we needed because we don’t regulate the telecommunications industries,” he said.

Part of the problem resulted from a misunderstanding because telecommunications companies compile their data in different formats than the FAA, he said.

“This was a new process for them,” Dickson said. “There wasn’t an understanding of the kind of data we needed.”

Despite any conflicts with aviation, nobody in the federal government wants to delay 5G technology.

“It’s the most transformative technology we’ve seen in decades,” said Meredith Attwell Baker, president of the CTIA, also known as the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

The telecommunications industry predicts 5G networks will have more than 1.7 billion subscribers worldwide by 2025. They operate with greater bandwidth than 4G, which gives them faster download and operating speeds.

5G also can connect more wireless devices while improving the quality of internet service. Government and industry officials say 5G is likely to compete directly with cable internet and existing internet service providers.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com

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