Skip to content

Illustration by Security Management

Alleged U.S. Airport Risks Stall 5G Rollout Again

Can 5G cellular networks and services disrupt airplanes’ flight controls? That question is at the heart of the debate between mobile phone carriers AT&T and Verizon and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and some U.S. airports.

Airports and the FAA allege that 5G cell services could potentially interfere with critical airplane technology, which could disrupt pilots’ ability to land safely in limited visibility, throwing off readings from aircraft equipment designed to tell pilots how close they are to the ground, CNN reported.

The rollout of 5G networks near airports had been rescheduled for today, 19 January, after multiple earlier delays. But the last-minute warnings from airports about 5G-related risks sent many international airlines scrambling to modify or cancel flights to the United States, especially because the popular Boeing 777 model aircraft—which is often used for international flights—could be particularly vulnerable to equipment disruption.

Some airlines swapped out passenger planes and cargo planes overnight to avoid the vulnerabilities, but others announced flight cancellations instead, according to the Associated Press.

The president of Emirates, Sir Tim Clark, told CNN that the airline was unaware of potential 5G rollout issues until yesterday morning. He called the situation “one of the most delinquent, utterly irresponsible” he has seen in his aviation career. Emirates broadly uses 777 aircraft for passenger travel, and the airline’s flight schedule took one of the biggest hits, AP reported.

Other countries—including the United Arab Emirates, France, and dozens of others—rolled out 5G coverage around airports without incident, the wireless carriers say, but the FAA warns that the C-Band strand and signal strength of 5G used in the United States could interfere with airplane equipment. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had set a buffer between the 5G band and the spectrum that aircraft use to ensure the network was safe to use near air traffic, but FAA officials remained leery of potential risks.

AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay turning on 5G cell towers within a two-mile radius of select runways, the Houston Chronicle reported. Other 5G rollouts will continue today.

According to U.S. President Joe Biden, the decision “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled.”

It is currently unknown how long the carriers will delay activating towers near airport runways.