Will the 5G FAST Plan Lead to Issues for Aircraft?

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The market for 5G technologies that boast enhanced speed and decreased latency is fast growing. In answer to this demand, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking the Facilitate America’s Superiority in 5G Technology (the 5G FAST Plan) as their strategy for implementation. The 5G FAST Plan includes opening up what is known as the C-Band, or the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, for public auction. Nevertheless, aviation groups claim that this will conflict with aircraft radar altimeters, also indicated as radio altimeters. It can lead to catastrophic outcomes.

Aviation groups are urging the FCC to pause the auction of the C-Band spectrum until more research on the effects of 5G operations in the C-Band is understood, and aviation specialists can improve the resilience of future radar altimeter designs.

“The deployment of 5G in the C-band could lead to possible harmful radio frequency interaction with radar altimeters/ It is necessary to protect the wavelength used by these sensors, which provide direct measurements of an aircraft’s clearance height over terrain or other obstacles.

David Silver, AIA Vice President for Civil Aviation,
Spectrum illustration showing 5G fundamental and spurious emissions. (RTCA)

Radar altimeters are deployed on tens of thousands of civil aircraft in the United States and globally to maintain several critical functions throughout multiple phases of a flight. Radar altimeters are the only sensor on board a civil aircraft that provides a direct measurement of the clearance height of the plane over the ground or other obstacles.

The 4.2-4.4 GHz band is where aeronautical radio navigation services operate, according to the FCC. There is a 220-megahertz guard band between the band that aircraft operate in and the band the FCC is auctioning.

However, aviation groups like RTCA say their study has shown the division is not sufficient. In October 2020, RTCA published a report that claims that 5G base stations and onboard equipment will affect radar altimeters. The information does not show harmful interference from 5G user equipment on the ground.

The report classifies aircraft to assess the level of influence from interference. It discovered that regional air transport, business, and general aviation airplanes would not escape the interference.

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