Domestic air travel in the U.S. is headed for a crisis early in the new year, thanks to a disagreement between two federal regulatory bodies concerning the signals generated by 5G wireless networks. In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission approved 5G operations in the C Band of the radio-frequency spectrum. Now the Federal Aviation Administration says that base stations operating in C Band near the flight paths for airports might interfere with the radio altimeters on planes. The FAA issued a directive prohibiting use of the altimeters when such interference is present. Unfortunately, that could preclude pilots from landing under some circumstances, and even when they can land it might increase cockpit workload during the most dangerous phase of flight–final approach. The directive takes effect the day before AT&T and Verizon roll out their new 5G service on January 5, so air traffic could start feeling the stress soon. The only practical near-term solution is to reduce the power output of base stations (cellular towers) near airport flight paths, a measure that telecom companies are ambivalent at best about implementing. But there’s a big difference between dropping a call and dropping an airplane, so policymakers need to pay heed to the FAA’s concerns. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
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