Under mounting pressure from top levels of the US federal government and aviation industry leaders, AT&T and Verizon Communications have agreed to a two week delay in deploying the C band wireless spectrum that has been confirmed to interfere with the reliability of safety-critical aviation equipment. Helicopter Association International (HAI) welcomes the concession, which follows years-long efforts by it and other aviation stakeholders to work with the Federal Communications Commission to safely deploy 5G and avoid disruptions to aviation operations.
The NBAA too noted that the delay will provide a fuller understanding about the impact of 5G signals on critical aviation safety technologies, including their potential for radar altimeter interference.
“NBAA welcomes this short-term reprieve from the Verizon and AT&T 5G rollout, so that we can better understand and communicate its potential impact on aircraft, airports and airspace across the system," says president and CEO Ed Bolen. "We need answers to key questions in order to ensure we remain the world's largest, safest and most efficient aviation system, and we will utilise this time to gather and share much-needed information about this development for all aviation segments, including business aviation.”
NATA vice president of regulatory affairs John McGraw goes on to say: “NATA is encouraged that the telecom companies recognise the potential effect of 5G services on the nation's aviation infrastructure. Even this brief amount of additional time will allow stakeholders to better characterise and mitigate the impact. Recognising the relief is temporary, discussions swiftly continue as work remains to determine a path forward.”
The 5G networks will operate within C-band frequency spectrum between 3.7-3.98 gigahertz, adjacent to frequencies utilised by radar altimeters in most commercial airliners and many business aircraft to provide direct, real-time and accurate measurements of the aircraft's clearance over terrain or other obstacles.
NBAA has published a new resource at nbaa.org/5G to keep members informed of possible operational effects on the use of radar altimeters and other safety technologies in many business aircraft. It includes a detailed summary of the aviation industry's concerns about interference, as well as information about what to expect after the 19 January 5G rollout date, such as FAQs; potential effects on aircraft equipment and capabilities; FAA Airworthiness Directives (ADs), Special Airworthiness Information Bulletins (SAIBs) and other regulatory publications; NBAA news articles, press releases, webinars and podcasts detailing concerns about signal interference; and NBAA contact information for inquiries and comments.
“We expect this situation to evolve rapidly as the clock ticks down toward the rollout of these new high-speed communications networks,” says Bolen. “NBAA has developed this new resource to provide the latest, up-to-the-minute information to help operators understand what they should know and what they should do.”
The NBAA plans to provide a real-time resource on the 5G deployment as more information becomes available.
HAI has commended the growing number of congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle who also called for a delay of 5G deployment, and says it appreciates Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA administrator Steve Dickson for their stewardship of the National Airspace System (NAS).
The economic case for implementing additional mitigations for 5G interference at the nation’s busiest airports to reduce delays, diversions and cancellations for commercial passenger and cargo flights is extremely compelling, and HAI is encouraged to see the wireless carriers offer further concessions in an attempt to resolve the devastating impact that 5G deployment would have on airline operations.
However, HAI notes that the effects of 5G deployment are not limited to the nation’s busiest airports, and mitigations by wireless carriers should not be limited to those locations either. All over the country, from densely populated cities to oil rigs 200 miles offshore, helicopters are used to save lives, serve and protect American citizens, and support critical industries in demanding environments, and many of those missions are conducted from start to finish without the use of airports.
The company goes on to point out that helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operators transport roughly 1,000 injured or critically ill patients every day. Up to 50,000 of the more than 300,000 people transported by HAA operators during 2021 were transported from off-airport/unimproved areas at night, meaning the mitigations proposed to maintain an equivalent level of safety at airports will have no effect on those operations. The families of those who die because a helicopter was not able to be dispatched to the scene of an accident because it was too close to a 5G tower will not be consoled by faster internet speeds. The loss of a single life because of misguided 5G-related policies would be reprehensible.
HAI reckons the voluntary measures proposed by the wireless carriers would provide modest 5G limitations at the surface of public use heliports, of which there are only 55 in the country. That number is dwarfed by the estimated 6,533 to 8,533 HAA landing sites in the United States, with more than 4,000 being private use heliports co-located at hospitals.
HAI urges policy makers to strongly weigh the irreplaceable benefits to public safety that can only be delivered by helicopters. As regulators spend the next two weeks bridging the gap between the wireless industry’s voluntary measures and what is needed to maintain the safety and usability of the NAS, solutions for helicopter operators must be prioritised.
Ensuring the safety of those who fly, the company says, whether pilots, crews or passengers, is always its top priority. As such, it will continue to advocate for reasonable limitations on 5G deployment so that safety-critical equipment on helicopters is not compromised by harmful interference. HAI will also continue to work with regulators to develop solutions that maintain safety and preserve the helicopter community’s ability to operate in a 5G environment.