Industry, FAA Scramble To Clean Up FCC 5G 'Mess'

 - January 14, 2022, 1:23 PM

It appears increasingly unlikely that significant disruptions to the national airspace will be avoidable starting January 19 when wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon begin activating their 5G C-band service.

Yesterday, the FAA published nearly 1,500 notams restricting certain types of aircraft operations at airports and heliports where 5G radio altimeter interference could be an issue. The notams prompted the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA) to note, “The notams prohibit aircraft from operating in poor weather conditions at more than 90 airports with passenger service, and even more airports with all-cargo service, across the nation—severely impacting operations across the entire aviation system.” ALPA went on to say: “The operational guidance issued by the FAA to mitigate the wireless industry’s poorly thought-out deployment of 5G will ensure our pilots maintain a high level of safety. However, flight cancellations and operational disruptions will be a reality as we work to clean up the mess made by the FCC [Federal Communications Commission].” 

That “clean-up” effort has significantly ramped up over the last two weeks. Yesterday, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) noted this progress. “The aviation industry has the most knowledgeable and accomplished engineers in the world," said AIA president David Silver. "While our technical experts are reviewing the notices to air missions (notams) published today and evaluating their impact to our industry, we know there is still a lot of work to be done to resolve these issues in commercial aviation and to begin addressing issues with general aviation and helicopters. We hope that the telecoms industry now sharing their data and coming to the table to consider what mitigations could be made on an urgent basis is a step in the right direction.”  

Leading aviation technical experts, in concert with the FAA, have devised a tool that calculates aircraft type-specific “protection zones” around cell towers, airports, and heliports based on technical specifications from the wireless industry and tower location data from the FCC. But significant additional data is required before the tool can become widely used. They are also feverishly working to design a streamlined alternative means of compliance (AMOCs) to the FAA notams and to evaluate current radio altimeter model performance in the C-band environment and design aircraft fleet-specific filtering, and, longer-term, to devise a standard for future radio altimeters. 

The FAA is providing some limited regulatory relief. Yesterday, John Shea, director of government relations for the Helicopter Association International (HAI), said that the FAA had granted a partial exemption to the requirement for functioning radio altimeters aboard helicopter air ambulances, allowing an AMOC that will include the use of night-vision goggles in combination with an external searchlight and communication with ground crew. 

Industry experts speaking at an HAI webinar on the topic yesterday warned that the road ahead would be tough slogging in a highly dynamic environment, as wireless carriers continue to add hundreds of thousands of 5G towers, thus potentially changing the existing safe zones around airports and helipads and creating the need for additional ones on a quarterly basis. They also noted that the FAA is scrambling to balance safety and regulatory compliance with the tsunami of paperwork that will be spawned by the current situation. “We’re not sure where this will end up yet,” Nick Kefalas, a Lockheed Martin technical fellow at Sikorsky, said during the webinar.    

“This situation, where lives have been put at risk, was completely avoidable,” said James Viola, HAI president and CEO. “Despite years of efforts by HAI and others to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution, the spectrum regulators and carriers chose to ignore our concerns and proceed down this path. We in the helicopter industry like fast internet as much as anyone,” said Viola. “However, the FCC chose to put profits over public safety. As a result, the nation now stands at risk.” 

At the end of the day, someone is going to pay, said Seth Frick, Honeywell radar systems engineer and a participant in the webinar. “I can assure you the aviation industry is keeping a ledger open and tracking all the costs that are being incurred throughout this process.”