The cancellation of flights to the United States by many international carriers including Air India owing to safety fears arising from a muddled 5G rollout is the latest in a series of setbacks for the airline industry. Earlier, travel during the December-January holiday season was severely affected by the Omicron surge. The US government is caught in a position where it has to balance the concerns of airline and telecom firms.
The 5G rollout by telecom companies AT&T and Verizon are using C-Band spectrum (3.7-4 GHz) that is in close proximity to frequency bands used by radar altimeters (4.2-4.4 GHz) on commercial aircrafts, which help in judging altitudes during landing and take-off. Other countries that have switched to 5G are using frequencies in the relatively farther 3.4 to 3.8 GHz and haven’t faced problems in the aviation sector.
A compromise proposed by FAA and accepted by the two telecom companies involves not switching on 5G cellular antennas in the proximity of 50 major airports. Verizon has said it will not use the higher band frequencies that are closer to the ones used by altimeters for several years. But 5G is the way ahead and the C-band spectrum promises much greater speeds. So solutions to prevent distortion of radar altimeter communications will have to be quickly devised. After the difficulties faced during the pandemic, airline companies won’t be happy to incur more costs on upgrades. The telecom companies paid the US government around $81 billion to use these frequencies. So the big question is whether it is the state’s responsibility to compensate airline companies.
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