Top US airlines on Sunday wrote to the Biden administration stating that 5G services deployment around airports should be banned because it may interfere with sensitive airplane instruments such as altimeters and significantly hamper low-visibility operations. Frequencies within the C-band being used for the 5G services are near airwaves used for aviation communication . Following this, several airlines around the world including Air India have curtailed flights to the US. As a temporary measure, AT&T and Verizon voluntarily limited 5G deployment near certain airports.

What is 5G network?

5G refers to 5th generation mobile network. When rolled out, it will represent a quantum leap over the current 4G mobile networks. 5G networks could deliver 10 times faster internet and more than 10 times improvement in latency (the time difference between sending and receiving messages) over 4G. Ultimately 5G is expected to reduce latency to 1 millisecond. 5G has the potential to unleash a whole range of services and capabilities that are not possible today in terms of scale and precision — mass deployment of autonomous cars, using drones for delivery, remote healthcare (even for critical cases and robotic surgery), precision agriculture (real time management of crops and fields), virtual reality and industrial automation. This is expected to pave the way for way a whole new world of connected devices communicating with each other.

Are the concerns raised by US airlines specific to that country?

5G is being rolled out in over 40 countries but so far only the US airlines have raised concerns. Generally, all airlines ask passengers to switch off their phones during take-off and landing because of concerns related to interference with avionics. But so far, this concern has only been on paper because mobile operators and airlines have been using different frequency bands. Therefore there was no real risk of interference. But in the US, since both telecom companies and airlines use the C-band, there could be a higher probability of interference. There have been discussions over how the transition should take place in the US for years but the telecom companies and the aviation industry are yet to arrive at an agreement.

Will 5G impact India's aviation and other sectors that use spectrum ?

India is yet to auction 5G spectrum, and services are expected to be launched only by next year. So far none of the airlines have raised any issues with the proposed plan for spectrum auction. But the Federation of Indian Pilots has shot off a letter to the Civil Aviation Minister urging that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation and the TRAI ensure safe implementation of 5G services in C Band.  Meanwhile, national broadcaster Prasar Bharti which uses it for its services has raised objections to the use of a specific frequency band for 5G. India had seen similar discussions when 3G and 4G services were rolled out. At that time, the armed forces and the space agency had claimed rights to specific frequency bands. Typically, these differences are sorted out by the TRAI and the Wireless Planning and Coordination wing of the Department of Telecom, before the launch of service. Hence it is surprising that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US has not been able to find a solution to the standoff between airlines and telcos in that country.

When will flights to the US resume normal operations?

The US administration under Joe Biden is trying to build a consensus between airlines, telecom companies and FCC on resolving the dispute over the rollout of 5G service. But it is not yet clear how much time it will take for the issues to be resolved. Meanwhile, the airlines may resume normal operations soon now that the telecom operators have voluntarily decided to stop 5G deployment near airports as a temporary measure to assuage concerns of the aviation industry.

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