Telecom companies, FAA strike deal on 5G interference for airplanes

Airlines will have to fix or replace older systems that could be vulnerable to interference.

Woman using wi-fi on airplane looking out window
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New equipment for older airplanes is the latest step forward in the ongoing dispute between the major telecom companies and the Federal Aviation Administration, as regulators agree to further measures aimed at reducing perceived safety risks caused by 5G service.

The concerns center on interference—the frequencies used by radioaltimeter systems, which are an important safety feature for landing aircraft, are close to those used by some kinds of 5G services. The FAA has long expressed concerns that older models of radioaltimeters could be affected by 5G deployments, potentially creating safety hazards when landing aircraft.

A deal reached last week outlines new requirements for operators of aircraft with systems most likely to be affected to add radio frequency filters to their aircraft, and sets a deadline of the end of 2022 for that work, according to a statement by the FAA.

5G retrofits expected by end of year

The telecom companies have been mitigating the potential interference by lowering transmission power at 5G access points in areas thought most likely to cause problems, but had set an end date of July 5 for those mitigations. The new deal will see the mitigations continue through the end of 2022, when regional carriers are expected to have their retrofits complete.

Major airlines are expected to take somewhat longer to "immunize" their fleets against potential interference—the FAA's release forecasts July 2023—but, when that happens, the telecom companies are expected to be able to operate in a comparatively unrestricted way.

"The radio-altimeter manufacturers have worked at an unprecedented pace with Embraer, Boeing, Airbus and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to develop and test filters and installation kits for these aircraft," the FAA statement said. "Customers are receiving the first kits now. In most cases, the kits can be installed in a few hours at airline maintenance facilities."

FAA's 5G agreement disappoints airlines

The airline industry, however, was unimpressed by the terms of the deal. International Air Transport Association director general Willie Walsh said in an official statement that the agreement was "disappointing" and "unrealistic," citing a lack of technical detail and regulatory approval of replacement altimeter devices.

"Furthermore, [the] FAA can provide no guarantee that airlines will not have to carry out further upgrades to radio altimeters as even more powerful 5G networks are deployed in the near future. Safety is our highest priority, but it cannot be achieved with this rushed approach," he said. "The FAA needs to continue working with all stakeholders collaboratively and transparently, including the FCC and the telecom sector, to define solutions and deadlines that reflect reality."

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