America’s new 5G networks will stop short of many major airports. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is worried that 5G’s use of high-band frequencies will disrupt some of the electronic equipment (including altimeters) that pilots use to land their planes in low-visibility situations, and has consequently asked network operators to create buffer zones at 50 airports around the country.
For the time being, network operators like AT&T and Verizon have agreed to honor that request, insofar as they will postpone the launch of certain services and turn off the transmitters located near the airports in question for a six-month period. They will also take additional steps to mitigate the potential for device interference.
However, the network operators have argued that there is no evidence to support the FAA’s concerns, and that the issue should have been raised sooner if it was a legitimate safety issue. They noted that 5G networks have already been installed near airports without incident in other countries.
In the US, commercial 5G networks will be deployed on mid-range C-Band spectrum, while the aircraft equipment in question uses frequencies between 4.2GHz and 4.4GHz. With that in mind, mobile operators believe that there is enough distance between the C-Band and the high-frequency aviation band to support 5G and safe flying conditions. AT&T and Verizon were two of four network operators (along with T-Mobile and US Wireless) that purchased licences to run commercial 5G networks on C-Band spectrum at an auction run by the US government.
The new buffer rules will apply to airports in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Miami, amongst several others. Some airports are exempt because they do not allow pilots to make any low-visibility landings. Others are exempt because there are no 5G towers in the immediate vicinity. The GSMA has predicted that 5G will account for half of all mobile connections in North America by 2025, though the new buffer zones will be an obvious setback as the industry works toward that goal.