Don’t Interfere with Aviation Safety: Test 5G Spectrum Allocation

During this year’s holiday travel season, over 50 million people will jet off to their destination. Upon boarding their flights, passengers won’t be greeted with Jingle Bells, but an announcement prompting them to turn their cellphones off once the cabin door closes. Why? Because using a cell phone may interfere with a plane’s navigation and communications equipment. This equipment operates on internationally designated spectrum bands that allow for interference-free communications, and with new technologies hitting the market, including an abundance of 5G mobile devices, the risk of interference may be growing.

Without proper testing from industry or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the safety of such devices – and air travel – is up in the air.

Spectrum is a finite resource, meaning that there is only so much available for use by the industries who need it, and developers of new technologies are seeking access to additional spectrum bands to support the benefits of the future 5G. This has led the FCC to look at opening up spectrum bands previously allocated to other services to support the rollout of 5G technologies. But while certain spectrum bands can be safely shared when a particular product does not use up the entirety of its band that is allocated or each product is designed for sharing, that is not always the case.

To put this in perspective, one critical aviation safety technology called the radio altimeter, which tells the plane its altitude and helps it land safely, operates in the 4.2-4.4 GHz spectrum band. Currently, cell phones are not permitted to operate in that band or any nearby band to prevent interference. However, if the FCC reallocates the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for 5G, the risk of interference could increase. To ensure there is limited interference, thorough testing must be conducted before the spectrum band is allocated to determine what the impacts of 5G devices might be to both to the reallocated bands well as to all adjacent band operations, which include aviation safety technology and many others like satellites, air traffic control systems, ground operations, and more. All of these systems need interference-free spectrum in order to ensure safe operations of the aircraft.

While one phone is unlikely to cause much interference, there may be as many as 1 billion 5G mobile devices in use by 2023. Given the high density of 5G-enabled devices in operation at one time, the combined spectrum strength that would be generated could directly impact the ability of the ecosystem to operate safely and securely.

5G has the potential to change the way our world connects and the speeds at which we engage online. The aerospace and defense industry is excited about the promise of 5G in transforming so many parts of our lives, but the technology must be introduced in a safe manner. We applaud the FCC for its work to ensure that innovation is not slowed down by regulation, but we urge the FCC to require thorough testing prior to reallocating any spectrum band so that any new use of spectrum does not impact safety.