Airline CEOs Freak Out Over 5G Despite Limited Evidence Of Real World Harm

from the everybody-take-it-easy dept

We’d already noted that the FAA had been pushing to impose limits on 5G deployments in certain bands due to safety concerns. The problem: the FCC, the agency with the expertise in spectrum interference, has repeatedly stated those concerns are unfounded based on the FCC’s own research. The whole feud has been fairly bizarre, with the FAA refusing to transparently “show its math” at several points, but taking the time to leak its scary claims to select press outlets.

More specifically: the FAA (and a big chunk of the airline industry) claims that deploying 5G in the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz “C-Band” will cause interference with certain radio altimeters. But the FCC has shown that more than 40 countries have deployed 5G in this band with no evidence of harm if you implement some fairly basic safety precautions (like limiting deployments immediately around airports, and utilizing a 220 MHz guard band that will remain unused as a buffer to prevent this theoretical interference).

The FCC says there’s not actually a problem here. And the wireless industry, having spent billions of dollars on middle band spectrum, obviously wants to move forward with deployment. Especially given criticism that U.S. 5G underperforms many overseas deployments thanks to a dearth of middleband spectrum. The U.S. has deployed substantial low band 5G spectrum (great range, lower speeds), and high band millimeter wave spectrum (poor range, poor building penetration, great speeds), but unlike many nations overseas, not much middle band (both good speeds and good range).

The whole C-band mess escalated significantly this week after the CEOs of several major airlines issued a public letter effectively proclaiming their businesses would grind to a halt if wireless carriers continue to deploy 5G in these spectrum ranges:

“The aviation industry faces ?catastrophic? disruption from the rollout of a new 5G service this week, airline leaders have warned. In a letter sent Monday to United States transportation and economic officials and obtained by NBC News, the CEOs of major carriers said that the launch could ground flights and leave “tens of thousands of Americans” stranded overseas.”

To be clear, evidence of actual harm here remains hard to come by. The FAA’s own recent memos (pdf) stated there was no “proven reports of harmful interference” with C-Band 5G deployments anywhere in the world. And wireless spectrum policy experts tell me there’s been absolutely no new studies that would justify this level of renewed freaking out by airline CEOs:

“We have seen no new evidence of anything,? Feld told Motherboard. ?No new studies. No lists of altimeter equipment with their sensitivity to potential harmful interference.”

When issues have popped up, they’ve proven relatively trivial to mitigate around the world. U.S. Wireless carriers have already agreed to limit deployment around at least 50 U.S. airports to reduce the chance of interference, and had agreed to a short delay to study harm before this week’s deployment. After some initial squabbling between the FCC and FAA, all sides seemed to have basically struck a deal on U.S. 5G deployment in these bands, including that 200Mhz buffer (double what companies like Boeing recommended) to further limit potential harm.

But the real reason for the chaos isn’t the actual interference. Some analysts suggest that, as usual, money is playing a role, and that the FAA, tightly wound up with the companies it regulates, wants to push the cost of any mitigation measures off to wireless carriers.

But Consumer groups, FCC sources, and wireless carriers all tell me the real problem is FAA procrastination, hubris and incompetence. Consumer groups and AT&T rarely agree on anything, but they both agree that the FAA didn’t respect the expertise of the FCC (who again already studied this problem before the C-band auction and found little need for concern), wasn’t willing to offer transparent evidence of their interference claims, didn’t bring any of its concerns up years ago during the investigation process, and has lagged on both certifying altimeters it deems safe to use around C-Band 5G–and setting up flight restrictions for planes that have altimeters that don’t qualify as safe under FAA guidance. AT&T was fairly blunt:

So it’s not really clear why the CEOs of major airlines have dropped a doomsday-esque letter like this into the mix this late in the game (literally a day before initial deployments), given what little safety issues that do exist have already been addressed by the FCC and others. Just like it wasn’t really clear why the FAA didn’t want to listen to the FCC when it said there wasn’t really an issue here that couldn’t be easily mitigated. Especially given this same technology has already been deployed in more than 40 countries (in some cases, like Japan, even closer to spectrum ranges used by avionics equipment) with absolutely no evidence of harm. There’s being adequately cautious out of respect for human safety, and then there’s just being difficult.

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Comments on “Airline CEOs Freak Out Over 5G Despite Limited Evidence Of Real World Harm”

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Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Blowing smoke

TL;DR -Ranting without background knowledge and no research is not a good way to educate or inform. US and EU "5G" frequency bands are different. The FAA has only approved slightly less than two thirds of aircraft to use radar altimeters on final approach next to "5G" towers.

Are "airline CEOs freak[ing] out" — NO.
Is there "limited evidence" — NO.

Aircraft manufacturers [not "airline" and not "CEOs"] have been told by the FAA not to do certain things. Reading about it before opining is probably a good idea. Here’s one article that is factual and doesn’t make up any false story or suggest anyone is "freaking out."

There’s a reason for this dichotomy of "Well it works in Europe" cry:

Europe uses different frequencies, so "5G" in the US is different from "5G" in Europe. Quote from the previous link:

The aviation industry is worried that US 5G service is too close to the spectrum used by radar altimeters, which is between 4.2 and 4.4 GHz. Europe does not face the same risk, according to the industry, because there is a much larger buffer between the spectrum used by radar altimeters…

If you want to get the FAA comments on how by now 62% of aircraft ARE certificated to operate close to US 5G towers, and 38% ARE NOT YET, check out:

I’ve said it before, and because some are too slow to pick up on it, I’ll say it again:

The FAA is tasked with safety. Their decisions are based on empirical and scientific research to reach that goal. The FCC is a toothless organization that sells NFTs/Cryptocurrency/Other-fake-stuff called "spectrum." They pretend it’s finite, and you better pay for it now or lose it.

Every frequency has harmonics. Some are a multiple of the frequency, and some are fractions of that frequency. Those are largely unregulated, a function of reality, and tend to cause RFI regardless of the license-holder’s equipment. What does the FCC do? — nothing. What does the FAA do — promulgate regulations to make it more safe for air traffic (passengers and cargo).

In reality radio spectrum is infinite. The "microwave towers" of yesterday are at a lower frequency than bluetooth, WiFi, and any of the wave multiplexed fiber transmissions. Tomorrow’s will be higher, and one day we’ll do more than CWDM, DWDM, etc. OTA.

The whole concept of "one frequency" is obsolete, and so is "spectrum licensing". However, the FCC sells it, carriers buy it, and there’s your market for the emperor’s clothes. Even your old analog FM stereo radio picked up two frequencies for every station (R+L, R-L) so it could demultiplex the two sides but monophonic radios would only pick up (R+L). We’re decades past that and still it continues.

Summary in TL;DR above.

FAA certificated commercial helicopter pilot
FCC certificated amateur radio operator – Tech+

e100 says:

Re: Blowing smoke

This comment was more helpful to understand the situation than the Techdirt article was.

At the end of the day, even if no interference actually exists about 1/3 of commercial aircraft are not allowed to make low visibility landings where 5G is deployed until their radio altimeters are fully tested and approved.

33% of aircraft grounded during bad weather is going to cause delays, that is just the reality of the situation not freaking out.

Steve B (profile) says:

Re: Re: Blowing smoke

Yeah, while he airlines were over-the-top/theatrical with their claims. Its understandable from this perspective. They follow the guidance of the FAA. They have to. The FAA f’d up royally on this. Because of that, the FAA in trying to play catchup has gave the current instructions grounding or limiting certain plane behaviors. Its very unfortunate because safety is a priority and as another poster talked about "liability", no one wants to be liable if something goes wrong. This all could’ve been avoided if the FAA had done its job when it was suppose to do it. All of this 5G claims of doom is beyond ridiculous at this point.

Who Cares (profile) says:

Re: Re: Blowing smoke

Well that is still the FAA to blame.
They thought they could win this turf fight with the FCC without ever bringing any proof of their side while the people on the FCCs side went "This is how reality works, what you claim is fantasy".
As a result they only announced they started testing altimeters on Jan 12th. And by Jan 19th 62% of planes was using a tested altimeter.
They could have done that when the FCC opened this for comments and if they’d found even one iffy type of altimeter it would have stopped opening these frequencies until that one was replaced.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Steve B (profile) says:

Re: Blowing smoke

Well, you might want to tell your buddies in the FAA that the next time they are asked to present evidence of their claims, they should do so. The problem here is, they haven’t. They’ve had at a minimum 2 years, possibly more to get their shit together and they have not. What makes it worse if even if what you claim was true, it makes the FAA look even worse for not putting forth the entire swaths of evidence you claim exists when asked to MULTIPLE TIMES.

Karl was right, the FAA gave instructions. The airlines are screaming….yes, the airlines and CEOs as seen in their signed letters. They follow the instruction of the FAA. So they’re upset and its understandable but, they were completely theatrical about it. Again, the fault lays with the FAA. He was also right when he said they had every opportunity to present evidence and they did NOT. The FAA f’d up in a very bad way with gross incompetence.

Your "know it all" response clearly ignores the fact that both the wireless carriers and FCC, both have experts who understand said things in their respective fields as well. Its very unfortunate you completely dismiss/ignore them while claiming you have all the answers.

In short, 5G frequencies here in the US are also being used for 5G elsewhere and the damn airlines have had no issues. Couple that with the FAA’s inability to put forth evidence refuting the studies/research done by carrier and FCC experts tells a very easy story. The claims of doom are unfounded and that if there was any changes to be made in airline hardware for any reason, the fault then lays with FAA and airlines for not keeping up. They sat on it for 2 years, possibly more and did NOTHING.

Paul B says:

Re: Re: Blowing smoke

Its not quite smoke, but its a really dumb analog system in play here.

The landing system uses a raw "transmit on this frequency" system. The plane uses some simple calculation and gets it height off the ground from that. For all the plane knows, if a 5G tower is physically downrange, you get weird interference if your signal gate is to big (old planes signal gates are oddly quite big).

Because of how simple the system is, a 2nd signal could tell the plane the wrong height because its expecting a signal coming from the correct landing angle on the ground and not a 100 foot tower a mile down the road.

Simple fix for most planes is to tighten up the signal gate. The FAA is more or less doing this, but they are doing it by blasting the plane with 5g radio waves and validating if the signal gate is correctly blocking it. Why are they doing this stupid solution? The FAA is massively risk adverse AND does not have the technical staff in the right spot to tell the airlines, "install the following signal gate", but instead has to let the airlines make the fix then test the planes.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Japanese saying

The Japanese have a saying — don’t look as to whom to blame. Look to solve the problem.

Yeah, the FAA took their sweet time and if they did anything there’s no work product to show for it.

HOWEVER, that provides no excuse to risk people’s lives. Better to take the time now and test things and ensure lower risk.

Sophistry aside, this is an ephemeral issue, and once resolved will be forgotten… until the next time an incompetent government agency seeks to make money they’re not entitled to under their charter, and other government agencies and a broad swath of a vertical industry have to handle it.

Yeah. the FAA didn’t do this for two years. Another two months won’t matter. Sorry, AT&T, Verizon, and other ripoff cellular carriers.


Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Blowing smoke

"Well, you might want to tell your buddies in the FAA that the next time they are asked to present evidence of their claims, they should do so."

No, he’s quite correct…but not exactly because of his delivery of facts. They’re nice but don’t touch the actual principle at play here.

The FAA has as their obligation to ensure secure air traffic. In doing so they operate from a whitelist not a blacklist.

In other words it’s not up to the FAA to prove something is unsafe, it’s up to anyone wanting certification from the FAA to prove safety to their standards. This is how, in an ideal world, every agency tasked to supervise commercial technology works.

Who Cares (profile) says:

Re: Blowing smoke

I apologize for the reverse order but it just happened.

You do realize that your entire rant is based on functional spectrum licensing.
Without it anyone could run whatever they want on for example the frequencies that are used by altimeters next to an airport and transmit whatever garbage they want.

Also yes you are technically right that the radio spectrum is infinite.
I doubt however that we’ll ever see phones or radios or altimeters working on kilometer wave bands. The reason for this being time. The higher the frequency the more data that can be transmitted per unit of time. So that turns the physic version of infinity into something between the 100+ MHz bands and the start of the micro wave spectrum.
Then physics interferes again. The higher the frequency the lower the effective range for the power put in the signal. And then you get things like the upper band for 5G (24 GHz- 39 GHz) getting absorbed by glass, some building materials. And even if that is left out, so completely open field you end up with theoretical range of 2 KM at most, realistically it is half of that at 1 KM. And in larger cities you might see an effective range of less then 100 M.
Currently the optimal window for cell phone towers due to this is between 500 MHz and 8 GHz. Not quite infinite, especially since there is a data per time unit limit. There are more uses for said spectrum then there is spectrum. Thus it is a scarce good.

And then that Orwellian the FAA did do something, the FCC didn’t.
Funny that you consider behaving like Chicken Little until it is clear that the n78 frequency band will be used by mobile phones as doing something. Remember that the FAA only started on Jan 12th 2022 (thanks for that link BTW, it doesn’t really support you though) testing altimeters. They should have done that 2 years ago when the FCC started doing something, and that something was opening up the comments about opening up this spectrum for mobile phone use. After which in an abundance of caution they more then doubled the initial guard band. But like a buddy of mine said "I get fired from my job if I can’t design devices that get interference from a 50 MHz guard band, let alone 200 MHz.", and he doesn’t work for the military or plane industry.

You are right about the EU though, they only use n77 at the moment which stops at 3800 MHz. But from the rest of your rant I’m guessing that that is merely to obfuscate that over 100 countries (the EU accounting for 27) are already using the n77/n78 band some of which did open the spectrum up to 4100 MHz. Oh and a few skipped right over the altimeter reserved frequencies to the n79 band (4400 MHz – 5000 MHz) on the other side to use that as well.
There is one more major difference between the EU and the USA. USA cell towers are allowed to emit a signal 50% stronger then EU cell towers, except in the area around an airport.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Blowing smoke

Good summary, although mistaken on several fronts, but as this is not a discussion of radio frequencies, spectra being a temporary distraction until non-analog transmission methods exist and replace today’s all analog transmission.

We can agree to disagree, if you like. Bandpass filters have been around for ages, and sadly they haven’t improved much. RFI and EMI is a thing, will be a thing, and is a serious factor to consider WHEN the data is such that interference can be fatal.

Anecdotal evidence is weak when compared to scientific studies. Sadly "use of 5g towers" vis a vis proximity to radar altimiter usage on short final is not a good fit for a lab study.

Did it seem I was ranting? Not enough hyperlinks with data? Didn’t like my faa link but don’t want to say why? Consider the dialogue… and if we’re here to argue with each other OR educate those who could use it.

But hey, if you’d rather cut me down, ignore the science, use statistics that the agency entrusted with keeping us safe rejected, that’s your right.


bcross52 (profile) says:

the simple answer is "liability"

I can’t to speak to the actual possibility of interference or to whether or not there were delays and miscommunications. We all know how long we were told that simply having a cell phone turned on in the cabin “might” cause navigation problems.

The simple truth is this. If the telcom companies screw up their services people go without communications and the telcoms say “Oh, darn. Sorry.” and send you the same bill.

If the airlines are correct and there is any risk of an issue with a plane landing there will be 1) lives at risk and 2) major legal action taken.

If I was an airline CEO I would have [off the record] told AT&T & Verizon ‘accept all liability and you can do whatever you want’.

bcross52 (profile) says:

the simple answer is "liability"

I can’t to speak to the actual possibility of interference or to whether or not there were delays and miscommunications. We all know how long we were told that simply having a cell phone turned on in the cabin “might” cause navigation problems.

The simple truth is this. If the telcom companies screw up their services people go without communications and the telcoms say “Oh, darn. Sorry.” and send you the same bill.

If the airlines are correct and there is any risk of an issue with a plane landing there will be 1) lives at risk and 2) major legal action taken.

If I was an airline CEO I would have [off the record] told AT&T & Verizon ‘accept all liability and you can do whatever you want’.

Anonymous Coward says:


Your airplane is equipped with a radar altimeter that operates between 4200 and 4400 MHZ.

The 5G towers are equipped with transmitters that operate between 3700 and 3980 MHZ.

The main problem reside here: The filter that your airplane use is a many decade old design that causes a big problem:

Check this out for ease of understanding:

You see, even though we left a WHOPPING 220MHZ separation (We called it BAND GUARD – mark this name for later) between 5G and Radio Altimeters, the filters used in the aviation industry will filter only frequencies bellow the green dotted line. The better the filter design / technology, the tighter is around the specific range.

In order words; Your airplane opens a channel too wide to "listen" to your radar and will end up "listening" to the 5G. That was not a problem when only radar altimeters where operating in a 1000s of mhz vicinity, but guess what, spectrum is a limited commodity, not infinite, and it was going to be a matter of time before that space was going to be occupied.

To put in perspective, the CBand have 280MHZ (3980 – 3700). It’s shared by at least 3 big carries, and they can all coexist inside the 280MHZ with BAND GUARDs between carriers of only 10MHZ. And we are transmitting from the same tower, antennas some times centimeters apart, without ANY issues with interference.

You know why? Because we use decent, modern FILTERS. Modern filters that should be equipped inn all airplanes by now, since the 5G standards are out for more than a decade already.

The aviation industry had time to retrofit their airplanes. And now they are, sorry to be blunt, playing dumb. They know they can hold the nations hostage by saying that this will disrupt flights in the middle of a pandemic, and gather support from the populace.

Obviously safety is paramount so I’m not advocating to turn on and let hell break lose. However, we need to remember: carriers paid many, many billions (81 to be exact) for these frequencies because they were NOT supposed to be in use, in other words, exclusive use.

The aviation industry is basically arguing they want to take over more than they are allocated to (4200 to 4400) to operate their altimeters. This is not fair with the carriers, and ultimately, to their costumers and shareholders, which will bear the blunt of the cost of these billions of dollars invested that they can’t use when they’ve planned.

Taken from:

e100 says:

Re: Background

You make it sound so easy.

The aviation industry moves at a snails pace.

When things are rushed lives are lost, just look to the Max to see that.

Imagine the effort required to prove that an upgraded radio altimeter with new "modern filters" works just as good or better than the radio altimeter that has been in use for 20 years and successfully assisted in tens if not hundreds of thousands of landings.

Paul B says:

Re: Re: Background

Your half correct. Many new planes come with modern filters. Many planes are however still certified to there original build spec which includes the original filter, Planes last 20+ years in many cases and even longer for bigger ones that don’t have as many landings and takeoffs per year.

So to fix the issue, the plane needs to install a new landing system, that is certified to the plane (including specific version). The only change in the system could be said new filter, but you need to have the system fully recertified and an upgrade issued by the manufacturer of the landing system AND from the plane manufacture.

As to why the airlines are mad? Many of the older planes are still in use, landing systems are not cheap, and more then likely the system is certified currently as a complete system, with no way to change just the needed component. In some cases older planes may not have a replacement system certified yet as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Background

You know, the AC above said, and i quote: "Obviously safety is paramount so I’m not advocating to turn on and let hell break lose."

You know what would have been easy? The aviation industry saying something years ago. Can’t fix? Won’t fix? Need more time? Whatever, but they said nothing, all along. That does not speak to safety at all.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I’m still believing the FAA is still scared over screwing up the 737 MAX so horribly that they are over compensating and over checking possible problems.

It truly is bullshit that this didn’t come to a head until the rollout was go, I mean 5G 5G 5G was all anyone could talk about, but apparently discussing possible issues didn’t come up. More likely the agencies are being headed by spoiled toddlers who are being cranky over the other agency daring to touch their personal playpen.

I miss when there were bi-partisan/non-partisan research units who could get all the data & produce clear & concise reports.
But then this is the United States of Corporations, because somehow the industries they are meant to oversee are telling them what to do rather than putting the data on the table.

Who Cares (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You do realize that they were not interested in certifying these altimeters until they literally had no choice. The only reason that the telcos are delaying the rollout of low band 5G is because the FAA promised them to use that time to run the tests.

Keep in mind that according to themselves the FAA has been certifying altimeters at a pace of almost 9% of airplanes using them per day since they started (Jan 12th first announcement of testing/certifying, Jan 19th 62% passed).
They could have done this two years ago when the FCC opened this spectrum auction for comments. Heck even three months ago would still have worked. Just finding one type not being able to handle anything in a 220-400 MHz guard band would have put the kibosh on opening up the 3800 MHz – 4200 MHz band until the FAA could state that all those are replaced.

Anonymous Coward says:

seems to me, after other airlines in other countries are already using 5G without any issues at all, that this is typical of American industry and it’s need to be incontrol of everything, more than anything, so it cam make extra money out of whatever it is!

and if you’re all so ‘heads in the sand’ still, look again at what the entertainment industries are doing and the lengths they are going to just to be able to get control of the Internet!

KBeck says:

FAA Vs. FCC & Airlines

All right. EE here. I’m afraid you’ve fallen for the Verizon/AT&T BS line.
First: Radar altimeters are part of a triply-redundant landing system, used in 0/0 landings, by both airlines, helicopters, and private planes. Which means that, when these systems are being used, the pilots can’t see the ground. And if anything fails in a detectable way, the system kicks off and has the pilot do a go-around, or simply Go Somewhere Else. (Assuming they’ve got the fuel to do so.) So, failing the radar altimeter is a very, very bad thing.
Second: Check out the FCTA report, at Most important part: Radar altimeter frequencies are around 4.5 GHz. 5G is around 4.3 GHz. Front end bandpass filter and radio receivers Were Not Designed For That Close A Separation. FCTA found out that Failures Will Occur, with math and bench testing – and that’s for airliners on a flight path, not for helicopters and such which go Everywhere (think: Medivac).
Third: The Telco’s say, "It’s Not A Problem! It Works In The EU!". That’s Top Quality BS: Yep, it works in the EU. The EU’s closest 5G band is, purposely, at 3.5GHz, far enough away to prevent problems. The Telco’s organization keeps on repeating that lie, but they Do No Math.
Fourth: You don’t like Ajit Pai, ex-head commissioner of the FCC, who would roll over and beg every time a U.S. Telco would bark? Now you’ve got another reason why. Only this time, we’re talking about planes auguring into the ground. So, when you see that Verizon ad, "Can you hear me now?", put a mental picture of a plane crashing during a foggy landing while he’s doing it.
Fifth: Telco’s organization’s recommendation: Make sure that all the passengers in a 200-passenger plane aren’t using their shiny new 5G phones on landing approach. Go ahead, I dare ya, stop the privileged idiots from doing their thing.
Sixth: Big problem is not that the duplex altimeters in an aircraft fail: It’s when they fail, together, and report the same erroneous altitude.. That’s when people die.
Finally: Verizon et. al. have been desperate for mid band 5G signals. They’ve paid Good Money for the bandwidth, they’ve got Gear on Poles, and they don’t want to hear about Real Electronics and Engineering. Their arguments against the FCTA report have been notably fact-free. That’s not good, when you’re talking serious safety issues.

Steve B (profile) says:

Re: FAA Vs. FCC & Airlines

Another person claiming to have facts and doesn’t…..5G is not in the 4.3. Verizon for example is operating 3.7 to 3.98. Don’t forget about the guard band. The altimeters are over 4GHz. And yes, Europe is using frequencies of 3.4 to 3.8.

The rest of your post is just pure political BS. The FAA had 2 years or more to prepare for this and did NOTHING.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: FAA Vs. FCC & Airlines

It’s more than a little ironic to see someone complaining about someone else claiming to have the facts when they dont’s and then demonstrate conclusively that they don’t have the facts themselves.

The FAA did NOT have 2 years to prepare for this. Why not? Because the FAA doesn’t work that way and is not mandated to work that was. The FAA certification is driven by airframe manufacturers requesting certification for an airframe and all the equipment it contains (including the flight entertainment system). If any equipment changes, a new certification is required. The various airframes (which could be 20 or more years old) were certified in one environment. Thanks to 5G this environment changed. Under the current (legal) mandate, it is the responsibility of the airframe manufacturers to seek re-certification in the new environment. Until they do, about all the FAA can (leagally) do is make public announcements.

Now, you may think that the FAA should be more pro-active. You may be right, but until politicians change the legislative mandate that the FAA works under (and provides the funding to fulfill the new, expanded, mandate), they can’t. They have neither the resources nor the legal authority to do so.

Retired engineer says:

Re: Re: Re: FAA Vs. FCC & Airlines

I’m an engineer who worked on 5G from 2012 till the end of 2020 when I retired.

I honestly don’t know if there is actual interference or not. I never saw a test report that had information on that. We had simulations saying it was ok but we didn’t have radar altimeters to actually test with (at least at the company I was with). We (the industry) were expecting the FAA and FCC to say it was ok or not ok.

I do know that the 3.5 GHz band was being looked at in 2012 when I switched to 5G work. I know there were prototypes operating in the 3.5 GHz band by 2015. Those prototypes were developed because the FCC was saying it would probably approve the spectrum for 5G once the FAA said it was ok.

Somehow the FAA and FCC weren’t really talking during all those years. The industry was moving ahead based on the assumption that everything was ok.

I don’t blame the FAA for being concerned. I want the planes I fly in to be very safe. I do blame the FAA and FCC for somehow not talking or doing the needed testing five years ago.

Someone (ideally a journalist but a Congressional committee would also work) needs to investigate why the FAA and FCC weren’t working together when they should have been.

Toom1275 (profile) says:

Using the FAA’s bullshit metrics they cooked up to pretend in bad faith that 5G would cause an issue, Wireless Avionics Intra-Communications (WAIC) systems would supposedly be causing planes to be dropping out of the sky as we speak, as it operates

  • in frequency bands closer to radio altimeters than 5G
  • at total power level comparable to 5G base stations
  • with antennas, unlike 5G, pointed directly at the aircraft.
Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

If you don't understand radio please go back to the small table.

It’s pretty clear everyone has an opinion, but this isn’t about your right to move your mouth, make noise, and irritate the adults at the higher table. This is a discussion of a scientific nature on how RFI can make aircraft landing dangerous.

The FAA did not do their tests quickly. The FCC did no tests. The airlines did NOTHING. The manufacturers (Boeing, Airbus, etc.) were waiting on the regulatory agencies. The media were lying about how if it’s safe in Europe it’s safe in the US. Unfortunately not so, since the frequencies are different.

If you have nothing to contribute other than

  • I blame the FAA
  • I know nothing about frequenices, and, um "Europe!"
  • AT&T and Verizona paid a lot so it’s cool

Realize you’re contributing nothing to human lives and safety. Time to let the adults talk at the adult table. Would you like some more sparkling cider?


Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: FAA slow to deliver on research

TL;DR – altimeters and radar altimeters do different tasks, show different numbers, and only one is subject to RFI. Also yes the FAA is slow. Show is DoT that won’t let us have laser headlights because in the 1960s they decided headlights have to be capable of a regular and bright light… and have a bulb.

Analysis for those who care:

…after causing a few days of mayhem, the FAA clears 62% of the US fleet to use the altimeters…

In the nature of comparing apples to apples, altimeters use ram-air through the pitot tube, comparing pressure to the static pressure port (ambient outside air pressure) and providing an approximation of HEIGHT ABOVE MEAN SEA LEVEL (MSL). There is an adjustable pressure level ("Kollsman Knob") so that as the aircraft transitions from one air mass to another the difference can be handled. These are not impacted by radio frequency interference (RFI) from ground towers.

RADAR altimeters, sometimes referred to as "radio" altimeters send a radio signal to the ground, pick up the return signal, and based on the round trip time (RTT) indicate the HEIGHT ABOVE GROUND LEVEL (AGL). These ARE possibly affected and that’s where the issue under discussion begins.

The FAA has been slow. Not making excuses for them, but their focus is 100% on safety. Your safety, my safety, and our lobsters from Maine on that FedEx plane are more important than pleasing AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The FCC, on the other hand, really want to please those who wine and dine them.

One other comment. It’s not 62% of the "US fleet". It’s 62% of all aircraft operating in our national airspace system (NAS). That includes non-US carriers, general aviation, hot air balloons, gyrocopters, helicopters, etc.

Even the NYT got the altimeter vs radar altimeter thing wrong… but knowing the difference is important for two reasons:

  1. Every aircraft piloted in our NAS has to have a working altimeter. See 14 CFR § 91.411
  2. RADAR altimeters are optional for private flying, and a requirement for any commecial (Part 121, 135) flying.
  3. The former display MSL (overall altitude above sea level)
  4. The latter display AGL (height above the ground)
  5. The latter are also used in automated flight landing systems
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: FAA slow to deliver on research

It is clearance for blind landings, and therefore radio altimeters with agreed restrictions on 5g. The FAA is making a pigs ear of communicating what they have tested. Why they only tested restricted 5g, and not full power, or both is a question they should have to answer.

What’s going on looks more like a pissing contest than regulators doing their job.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

LittleCupcakes says:

Techdirt is outraged at something and all the sycophantic commenters react as they have been conditioned to. No surprise there.

I am glad to see in some above comments something other than mere bleating echoes of the opinion piece itself.

I claim no specialized knowledge about spectra or altimeters. I can only look at what’s there and what isn’t.

What isn’t is: Why would the airlines go through all of this? Disruptions to operations are a big deal, and are very costly. To imply that they are doing this needlessly requires some sort of explanation as to why, or at least a better explanation than “being difficult” (good speculation there, Bode).

Corporations generally don’t care all that much about the individual consuming clients, but they do rightly care about shit that costs them money. The airlines would much rather keep on operating as they have been (which ain’t great for flyers) than bouncing equipment and crew around.

If the interference issue isn’t a real thing, then why exactly would airlines go through with all of this disruption? Besides “being difficult”, that is.

Which prompts another question: Is it possible that Techdirt is simply aggressively wrong about this one? Absolutely unbelievable to even suggest such a thing to the bulk of Techdirt commentariati, I realize, but isn’t it at least possible?

Special thanks to Ehud Gavron for the information and the impressively measured comments.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Drugs?

LittleCupcakes shows no sign of lowering their hallucinogen intake.

When all you have to add is disparaging someone’s comment, and worse yet, labeling them as criminal (no hallucinogens are legal in the US) and insane (people being accused of having "hallucinogen intake" are not participating in this world… merely their hallucination of it… you make a big stink to discredit the comment.

And yet, what did you add? Nothing. Ok. If there was a problem with LittleCupcakes could you point out what it was and what the "non-hallucenogenic" reality you believe is different?

No links.
No claims.
No evidence.
Just the left-field "hallucinogen" thing.

Step off, kid.

Rocky says:

Re: Re:

Techdirt is outraged at something

What is Techdirt outraged about, what specific language in the above piece led you to this conclusion?

What isn’t is: Why would the airlines go through all of this? Disruptions to operations are a big deal, and are very costly. To imply that they are doing this needlessly requires some sort of explanation as to why, or at least a better explanation than “being difficult” (good speculation there, Bode).

Because it’s easier "being difficult" than actually doing something. In the aviation sector, doing something always costs money – and considering the economic hit the airlines have taken during COVID spending money is very very far down on their list of things they want to do.

Which prompts another question: Is it possible that Techdirt is simply aggressively wrong about this one? Absolutely unbelievable to even suggest such a thing to the bulk of Techdirt commentariati, I realize, but isn’t it at least possible?

What is Techdirt possibly aggressively wrong about? You didn’t specify that, is it the whole article or just something else in the article you think fits that description?

The facts are that almost everyone concerned dropped the ball in one way or another. The FAA for not explicitly spelling out what they thought the problem was for a long time and for not being proactive in how technological progress may affect prior certified equipment, the FCC for granting a license for a spectrum that could possibly interfere with radar avionics (which I suppose is FCC certified?), the airlines for freaking out ("catastrophic disruption" in their own words) even though flights can land just fine without a radio altimeter except in a very few situations, the wireless providers for not considering the possible interference from 5G-towers near airports.

This is what happens when there is no real communication going on and no one is really proactive in what they are doing.

bcross52 (profile) says:


The reality is that no one is “responsible” and everyone is “responsible”. It’s what happens when you have different government entities with totally different priorities looking at an issue from different perspectives. Communication would obviously solve this but inter-agency cooperation is basically an unnatural act.

It sucks. But it is an inconvenience — not a crisis.

bcross52 (profile) says:


The reality is that no one is “responsible” and everyone is “responsible”. It’s what happens when you have different government entities with totally different priorities looking at an issue from different perspectives. Communication would obviously solve this but inter-agency cooperation is basically an unnatural act.

It sucks. But it is an inconvenience — not a crisis.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

The dangers of flying...

…that worries me at how "easy" it would be to endanger a flight…

There’s a reason that shining a laser at an aircraft is punishable by fines in the tens of thousands of dollars. If it catches on the cockpit window it may spread reflections all over the cockpit instruments and cause the pilots temporary blindness.

There’s a reason that bringing items prohibited by the TSA will get the person bringing it in a lot of hot water. Unfortunately, the TSA doesn’t find all the contraband, and — worse yet — you ARE ALLOWED to bring A DISPOSABLE RAZOR, so Florida Man can hold that razor to a flight attendant’s neck… and at the least the flight WILL be diverted.

As someone who used to have badged access to the Sterile Area (past the security-theater) and the Air Operations Area, I can tell you that it’s not impossible to get in there without a badge, and plant whatever you want wherever you want… until you get caught.
People do crazy stuff:

You can also take one of the luggage carts in the airport parking lot, cut a small hole in one of the metal tubes (like a shopping cart handle), and fill the tube with rounds of ammunition. Seal with some tissue paper so they don’t rattle or fall out. You can take them out in the restroom stall. Then take a pistol that is almost entirely invisible to X-rays like Polymer 2 (what Glock pistols are made of), disassemble it. The spring is metal but allowed. The slide is metal so you can put it in a thermos (allowed) which will conceal the contents. Use the same restroom stall to assemble the weapon, load the rounds into the magazine, and chamber a round.

There are many other attack vectors.

On the other hand, how did you get to the airport? Was it in a land vehicle? Last year in the first 10 months 38,400+ people died in vehicular accidents. In contrast 137 people died in airline crashes

I don’t fly anyway, but if I did, that’s what I would be thinking.

Maybe so, and you have that right, but the FAA is still working to keep it safe.


Rocky says:

Re: The dangers of flying...

Maybe so, and you have that right, but the FAA is still working to keep it safe.

The problem with FAA is that they are mostly a regulatory body so the impetus for new regulations and certifications are often entirely external and not proactive.

Then we have the proven incestous relationship between the FAA and the aircraft industry which have led to certifications that should never have been issued. I guess one of the underlying causes for that problem can be attributed to them being underfunded which have led to them relying on the aircraft industry too much to do things they were supposed to do.

I’m not saying that they aren’t working to keep flying safe, I’m just pointing out that their track-record isn’t spotless. Honest mistakes and/or unforeseen events are one thing, but letting things slide is an entirely different matter when it comes to safety.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Progress? 200220122

The article speaks for itself. An abbreviated opinionated summary is here only for those who don’t want to read original material. CNN is a great resource… why not read it?


The FAA has now approved 80% of specific aircraft to operate within range of now-lower-power 5G facilities. Regional carriers who use Bombardier (who bought Learjet and others) are not so blessed.

The airline CEOs who never "freaked out" are happy. The passengers who didn’t care, don’t care, won’t care, and just want to go home for Christmas (well they did, but now have to wait for next Christmas) don’t care

The FAA is still working on this, yes, late and slow. The point has been made that they’re late and slow. They get called "FAA".

The Federal Communication Commission somehow escaped being a TLA and is called by its non acronym name. They enjoyed being wined and dined by Big Telco… and now they’re "supporting their donors" by insisting that really… let’s just go 5Ging and Flying and see if anybody dies.

Res ipsa loquitur

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