The Potential Interference Between 5G Signals and Radio Altimeters

For nearly the past year, 5G interference with aircraft systems has been a hot topic in the telecom and aviation sectors. There are concerns that 5G signals impact radio altimeters, a critical piece of navigation equipment on aircraft that monitors the altitude of the plane and performs other functions.

Radio altimeter functionality has a distinct impact on safety. However, this topic isn’t cut-and-dry, and there’s a significant amount of debate regarding whether the potential interference would result in legitimate aircraft operational problems. If you’d like to learn more about the situation, here’s what you need to know.

The Potential Interference Between 5G Signals and Radio Altimeters

At the core of the debate are the needs to expand 5G networks without negatively impacting aircraft safety. Radio altimeters operating at 4.2 to 4.4 GHz are the primary focus, as 5G cellular service frequency bands are relatively close to that range.

Previously, cellular service maintained a sizeable distance from the radio altimeter frequencies. On the upper end, 4G LTE cellular frequencies didn’t typically exceed 2.5 GHz, while those from previous iterations fell notably below that mark.

With 5G service, frequencies reach 3.7 to 3.98 GHz, putting the range close to what radio altimeters rely on for safe aircraft operation. As a result, there’s concern about potential cellular interference with the radio altimeter frequencies. If that occurs, radio altimeters may produce inaccurate altitude measurements. It could also impact other systems, including Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS), Predictive Windshear Systems (PWS), Ground Proximity Warning Systems (GPWS), Automatic Flight Guidance and Control Systems (AFGCS), and more.

The potential interference is undoubtedly a significant concern for the aviation industry, particularly since safety incidents can have substantial effects. However, the need for cellular expansion is also a considerable part of the equation.

Cellular usage continues to increase on a global scale. Additionally, the reliance on cellular networks for a wider array of activities is also rising. In turn, the telecom industry has to find ways to meet demand and improve service quality in this modern landscape.

Finding Balance Between 5G Expansion and Aircraft Safety

In many cases, the key to solving the debate is finding balance. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plays a critical role in addressing the concerns of the aviation industry while meeting the needs of the telecom sector.

One key step taken by the FAA is coordinating with stakeholders on both sides of the equation. This multi-faceted strategy is leading to formalized plans, focusing on phased approaches that include retrofitting potentially impacted aircraft with frequency filters.

Wireless companies are coordinating with the FAA in regard to expansion plans. Initially, this process involved identifying low-risk locations where network expansion isn’t likely to impact flight safety adversely. Additional projects are also assessed jointly.

This cooperative approach is ultimately leading to the necessary degree of balance. While it possibly alters network expansion timelines, it ensures that network enhancements won’t negatively impact air travel, leading to safe rollouts that augment network capabilities without undue risk.

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