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Fifty US airports to have buffers when telcos turn on new 5G services

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In a bid to support the safe coexistence of flight operations and major telcos’ deployment of 5G services in the C-band, fifty US airports will have buffer zones when AT&T and Verizon switch on new 5G services later this month, the Federal Aviation Administration has assured.

The airports include Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago O’ Hare, Newark, New York JFK, Los Angeles International, Philadelphia and 43 other facilities (PDF).

“The wireless companies agreed to turn off transmitters and make other adjustments near these airports for six months to minimize potential 5G interference with sensitive aircraft instruments used in low-visibility landings,” said the FAA on Friday. It elected the airports based on their traffic volume, their number of low-visibility days and geographic location, as well as on input from the aviation community.

Radio altimeters provide critical information about an aircraft’s height above the ground, and the data informs other safety equipment onboard. But the C-band being used for 5G services — spectrum that was auctioned to wireless carriers by the US Federal Communications Commission — is close to the frequency band used for altimeters, causing many aviation stakeholders, including airlines and pilots, to worry about potential interference at airports.

Indeed, the outcry from industry and some lawmakers has been fierce. Early this month, both AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay 5G deployment for 14 days, until 19 January, and adopt some proposed mitigations. “It’s clear that this irresponsible rollout of 5G wasn’t ready for takeoff, and that’s why US Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, ALPA and other frontline aviation workers and stakeholders had called for a delay in implementation,” said Capt. Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA) on 3 January.

Four days later, the FAA revealed the list of airports that will have a 5G buffer zone for six months starting on 19 January. It noted that many airports are not currently affected by the new 5G deployment. “These include airports not in the 46 markets where the new service will be deployed and airports that do not currently have the ability to allow low-visibility landings,” explained the agency.

Meanwhile, the FAA is working with airlines and manufacturers to assess how radar altimeters will perform in the 5G C-band environment.


Separately, a number of aviation stakeholders are working to roll out 5G inflight connectivity for airlines and their passengers. But their efforts to deliver broadband Internet onboard is in no way related to the issues being addressed by the FAA. “The real issue is C-band, not 5G or 4G design or architecture,” noted SmartSky Networks CEO David Helfgott in an interview with RGN.

Even so, the headlines about 5G services tend to get mixed, prompting Gogo Business Aviation to clarify late last year that its forthcoming 5G air-to-ground IFC solution is not impacted, and to release an educational white paper for its OEM and dealer partners, as well as customers.

“We’ve also been working with NBAA, AEA and GAMA to help provide further education on the topic and clarify that we are not part of the concern,” said Gogo CEO Oakleigh Thorne. “The issue is not a 5G issue, it’s a spectrum issue and we don’t, and won’t, operate in the frequency ranges (C-band) in question. Ongoing, we will continue to work to clarify our position on this topic as needed because it can be a confusing topic if you don’t have the proper information.”

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