LONDON – As 5G begins a new era of telecommunications in the United States, the political fight between such operators and the aviation industry is beginning to brew.
Such neoliberal perspectives and approaches towards 5G will aim to forget the past woes of the Boeing 737 MAX crisis due to such deregulation becoming a worry for safety.
This piece will look into how the fight between 5G and Aviation could place safety at risk, once again at the expense of fliers.
The Political Context
During the Christmas period, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “released a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) regarding the start of 5G broadband service in 46 cities on January 5” (Tegler, 2021).
It is of the understanding that FAA concern stems from 5G “dramatically curtail(ing) airline and general aviation operations” through disruption of key equipment onboard (ibid).
“The agencies disagree about whether it’s safe to allow 5G equipment to operate within a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum known as the C-Band” with the FAA arguing that “5G signals could interfere with the operation of certain altimeters” (Vincent, 2021).
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is complying with FAA requests at the moment, “but some third-party experts say these air safety fears are overblown” (ibid).
“The FAA position threatens to derail the reasoned conclusions reached by the FCC after years of technical analysis and study,” said the authors of the recent letter, former FCC chiefs Ajit Pai, Tom Wheeler, Mignon Clyburn, Julius Genachowski, Michael Copps, and Michael Powell.
The reason why third parties think that this is overblown is because of the equipment the likes of AT&T and Verizon have purchased to broadcast 5G.
“As the FAA directive notes, the 3.7-3.98GHz frequencies for which AT&T and Verizon paid $23 billion and $45 billion early this year don’t overlap radio altimeters’ 4.2-4.4 GHz frequencies. Some models of altimeter might get confused anyway by adjacent signals – but we still don’t know which ones” (Pegoraro, 2021).
So it appears at this stage that the FAA & FCC need to come together very quickly to resolve such a dispute as “On Jan. 5, wireless carriers are expected to activate the 5G service that relies on the radio frequencies the FAA is worried about” (Fung, 2021).
In the U.S Senate Commerce Committee, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby is a vocal critic of this move, especially with the fact that 5G “could delay, divert or cancel about 4% of daily flights and impact hundreds of thousands of passengers” (Shepardson, 2021).
“It would be a catastrophic failure of government. Coming Jan. 5 — unless something changes — we will not be able to use radio altimeters at 40-something of the largest airports in the country,” Kirby said. “It is a certainty. This is not a debate” (ibid).
Via a letter seen by The Wall Street Journal, cellphone carriers are offering to “further dim the power of the 5G service for six months to match limits imposed by regulators in France, giving U.S authorities more time to study more powerful signals’ effect on air traffic” (Fitzgerald & Tangel, 2022).
This comes following the two cellphone carriers rejecting the FAA’s calls to delay the 5G roll-out.
So, in all, there is a lot of political hari-kari ongoing between the FAA, FCC, and cellphone carriers as they aim to come together to produce the best compromise possible, without delaying the roll-out.
Could this result in another 737 MAX-esque Crisis?
Readers who are viewing this piece may get confused over mentioning the 737 MAX when the conversation is about 5G and the effects on the aviation industry.
The reason why it is mentioned in this piece is to do with neoliberal institutions and companies trying to come together, but hopefully not in the case of safety.
Failures of the neoliberal system were a byproduct of the 737 MAX crisis due to a low level of regulation when it came to the certification process.
As mentioned in my dissertation on this, “Boeing pushed the FAA to relax restrictions on certain elements of the aircraft due to the previous release of the 737-800 and other variants dating back the last 40 years” (Field, 2020).
And such relaxations led to the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee ruling “that the cultures of Boeing and the FAA were to blame for the 737 MAX disasters” (Field, 2020a).
The point of this is that if either the FAA or the FCC cannot come to a positive consensus, with safety being at the forefront, then delays need to be instigated in order to ensure that safety is guaranteed for those flying in the air.
Such a question that should be asked is: Is the FAA now taking note of safety in the aftermath of a crisis that placed a lot of criticism on the low-regulation, neo-liberal free market?
Do safety technologies in Aviation need to improve at the benefit of 5G?
As we all know, technologies in aviation continue to innovate year after year. From implementing onboard WiFi to producing hydrogen-powered aircraft, things are innovating at a fast rate.
Such technologies in safety have evolved so much since the 1960s.
In terms of accident numbers, “the piston-driven aircraft that dominated the world’s airline fleet in 1960 had an accident rate of 27.2 accidents per million departures” (Allianz, 2022).
For the “current generation of aircraft, [it has] an accident rate of 1.5 accidents per one million departures” (ibid).
Although such technologies have prevented crashes or accidents, they do have the potential for creating unanticipated consequences as Jon Downey, Head of Aviation at the US, AGCS mentions:
“Many of the new technologies have helped improve safety, such as better cockpit instrumentation displays and fly-by-wire systems. However, technology has a potential for creating unanticipated consequences” (ibid).
Such systems can fail, and of course, 5G could produce failures of altimeters and other important equipment that requires a signal to fly.
In the case of implementing 5G across a country, with such technologies advancing as well as industry “stepping forward to adopt them in the most optimal way, everything can fall flat without effective implementation” (Cigniti Technologies, 2021).
So it is of utmost importance that in the crunch time ahead of the January 5 deadline, that both sides are clear-cut with the system that they are rolling out.
What remains clear is that this political fight will go all of the way up to the deadline of January 5.
But what is the most important aspect is that safety is not compromised because companies such as AT&T & Verizon wish to push through 5G for their own gain.
The FAA is right to hold its ground up to this point, and the expectation would be on the aviation side, that there is a delay to the 5G rollout until all safety concerns can either be ruled out or limited.
Because if not, we may end up back to where were over three years ago with the 737 MAX crisis.
- Tegler, E. (2021), The FAA Throws Down Against The FCC & Telecoms with Sample 5G Restriction NOTAMs, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/erictegler/2021/12/29/the-faa-throws-down-against-the-fcc–telecoms-with-sample-5g-restriction-notams/?sh=3ed3a36127f8 [Last Accessed 3/1/22]
- Vincent, J. (2021), Former FCC Officials Are Worried About Air Safety Fears Delaying 5G Rollout, The Verge, https://www.theverge.com/2021/12/14/22834080/5g-rollout-delay-faa-fcc-letter [Last Accessed 3/1/22]
- Pegoraro, R. (2021), How 5G could make a mess of your flight, USAToday, https://eu.usatoday.com/story/tech/2021/12/21/5-g-phones-airplanes-flight-delays-faa/8947513002/ [Last Accessed 3/1/22]
- Fung, B. (2021), A Political Fight over 5G could upend air travel: What you should know, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/22/tech/faa-5g-explained/index.html [Last Accessed 3/1/22]
- Shepardson, D. (2021), U.S. airlines warn 5G wireless could wreak havoc with flights, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/us-airlines-warn-5g-wireless-could-cause-havoc-with-flights-2021-12-15/ [Last Accessed 3/1/22]
- Fitzgerald, D. & Tangel, A. (2022), AT&T and Verizon Reject FAA’s request to delay launch of 5G services, MarketWatch, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/at-t-and-verizon-reject-faas-request-to-delay-launch-of-5g-services-11641157827?link=MW_latest_news [Last Accessed 3/1/22]
- Field, J. (2020), Dissertation: The Boeing 737 MAX: A Failure of Free-Market Neoliberal Approaches, Airways Magazine, https://airwaysmag.com/op-ed/dissertation-the-boeing-737max-a-failure-of-free-market-neoliberal-approaches/ [Last Accessed 3/1/22]
- Field, J. (2020a), Boeing, FAA Cultures to Blame for 737 MAX Disasters, Airways Magazine, https://airwaysmag.com/industry/boeing/boeing-faa-cultures-to-blame-for-737-max-disasters/ [Last Accessed 3/1/22]
- Allianz (2022), How aviation safety has improved, https://www.agcs.allianz.com/news-and-insights/expert-risk-articles/how-aviation-safety-has-improved.html [Last Accessed 3/1/22]
- Cigniti Technologies (2021), The Future of Air Travel in a New Age of Technology, https://www.cigniti.com/blog/aviation-future-technology/ [Last Accessed 3/1/22]