5G Wireless Internet Can Possibly Ground Planes And Disrupt Travel Says Major US Airlines

A coalition of major U.S. airlines and cargo lines warned on Wednesday the new, faster 5G wireless internet service could ground planes and disrupt travel if more is not done to accommodate its signal, which can be 1 billion times as strong as that emitted by a cellular tower.

The “airline industry strongly urges swift action” from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and global regulators to address potential interference with aircraft systems from the forthcoming service, Anne Ferro, president of the Airlines 4 Atlantic America advocacy group said in a letter seen by Reuters.

Because 5G signals cannot penetrate tall structures or airplanes in flight, certain services using the higher frequency bands will have to be relocated to other spectrum or different polarization so they don’t interfere with the ground-based signals.

Ferro said such changes could take years and require “significant” capital investments by airlines, some of whom are dealing with higher fuel prices and less demand for air travel.

Regulators globally have yet to finalize their requirements or how best to deal with potential interference between new 5G ground networks and aviation systems, but a European Commission official told Reuters it is working on a mitigation plan. The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ferro said her group is wary of any lengthy tests since they can take up to three years before being completed, followed by another “18-24 months or more before equipment is modified.” At that time she said planes should be grounded as they wait for approval to fly.

Pilots have already complained about similar interference from existing 4G networks that render some cockpit devices largely useless on the lowest frequencies, according to a study released in 2016 by Honeywell International Inc and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A further complication is that 5G signals do not travel through water well, raising concerns for transoceanic flights which would require ground towers every 350 miles or so. As a result carriers are likely to use satellite connectivity in remote regions where there are no cellular towers, industry officials said.

That would mean higher costs for airlines but they can likely pass them along to passengers who are increasingly demanding faster connections when traveling. “This will be critical when planning your next trip,” Ferro said in the letter.

For airlines, time is of the essence in resolving potential interference issues since 5G could be widely available by 2020 or 2021, when many carriers are looking to launch their first dedicated airplane to offer in-flight Wi-Fi service.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said it was closely watching developments but analysts say they do not expect much change for at least five years because of the lengthy testing and investment requirements. “It’s a lot like asking ISPs to fix network neutrality problems before introducing fiber,” said Roger Entner, an analyst with Recon Analytics in Boston.

“It’s just uneconomical to build out infrastructure that will be useless after you’ve launched your product.”