Wireless Signals Could Interfere with Aircraft Instruments

A new 5G network has aviation regulators worried.

It’s become as much a part of the flying experience as crawling through the security line or half-listening to the safety briefing: turning your phone to airplane mode.

Although it's generally believed that disabling the radio transmitters on your mobile device prevents interference with your plane’s electronic systems, it’s actually required by the Federal Communications Commission in order to prevent your phone from disrupting cell towers on the ground from 40,000 feet.

That doesn’t mean, however, that wireless communications won’t affect flight systems entirely.

Early last year, the FCC moved to open a valuable new segment of the electromagnetic spectrum known as the C-band for cell phone use, and the new 5G network is now set to debut in January.

Federal aviation officials, however, began sounding the alarm months ago about the new 5G network — and whether it could affect vital navigation and safety instruments. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Aviation Administration would limit pilots’ use of automatic landing systems and other cockpit technology on more than 6,000 airliners and other aircraft.

Those systems — commonly used in poor weather conditions — rely on information from altimeters, which measure an aircraft’s distance from the ground. The agency and aviation industry groups have raised concerns about whether signals sent in the new spectrum band could interfere with radio altimeters.

Telecom companies have moved to limit the power of some 5G base stations in an effort to assuage regulators’ concerns, but they maintain that the new network poses no risk to flight safety.

The aviation sector, meanwhile, suggested that the new restrictions could wreak havoc on the nation’s air travel. Industry groups warned the FCC last month that restrictions could effectively halt flying at night or in any other conditions in which pilots can’t see the runway.

The FAA said in a brief statement that it was working closely with both the FCC and wireless companies, and that it was confident that 5G expansion and aviation could “safely co-exist.” Details on which airports would be affected by the order will be issued at a later date.

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