Wireless signals could interfere with aircraft instruments

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It’s as much a part of the flying experience as it is crawling through the safety line or half-listening to the safety briefing: put your phone in airplane mode.

It is generally accepted that disabling radio transmitters on your mobile device prevents interference with your aircraft’s electronic systems – but it is actually required by the Federal Communications Commission to prevent your phone from interfering with cell towers on the ground from 40,000 feet.

This does not mean, however, that wireless communications will not fully affect flight systems.

At the start of last year, the FCC decided to open up a valuable new segment of the electromagnetic spectrum known as C band for cell phone use, and the new 5G network is now slated to debut in January.

Federal aviation officials, however, started ringing the alarm bells months ago on the new 5G network – and whether that could affect vital navigation and safety instruments. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Aviation Administration would limit the use by pilots of automatic landing systems and other cockpit technologies on more than 6,000 airliners and other aircraft.

These systems, commonly used in bad weather conditions, rely on information from altimeters, which measure an aircraft’s distance to the ground. The agency and aviation industry groups have expressed concerns over whether signals sent into the new band of spectrum could interfere with radio altimeters.

Telecom companies have decided to limit the power of some 5G base stations in an attempt to allay regulators’ concerns, but they maintain the new network poses no risk to flight safety.

The aviation industry, meanwhile, has suggested the new restrictions could wreak havoc on the country’s air travel. Industry groups warned the FCC last month that the restrictions could effectively stop flights at night or any other condition in which pilots cannot see the runway.

The FAA said in a brief statement that he worked closely with the FCC and wireless companies, and that he was convinced that the expansion of 5G and aviation could “safely coexist.” Details on which airports would be affected by the order will be released at a later date.


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