5G and the FAA: What the Heck Is Going On?

We’ve been talking about the rollout of 5G for so long that we’re already talking about its 6G replacement, which looks to be a ton more powerful. That increased power is a lot more concerning given that U.S. carriers, both people and freight, have warned that 5G could down airplanes. That “news” popped up just prior to turning the 5G radios on in most U.S. geographies, even after over a decade of standards efforts and testing.

While the controversy appears to have been alleviated by an agreement to delay rollout near airports until a solution is found, there’s still a lot of work to make sure the U.S. doesn’t fall further behind in this important technology.

The U.S. lags Europe and much of Asia, particularly China and South Korea, in its 5G rollout, and it seems to be working out just fine in those other countries.

AT&T spokesperson Megan Ketterer told CNN as much this week: “We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it to do so in a timely manner.”

As we learn more about the issue, it appears the FAA is well behind certifying aircraft to work in 5G environments, and not because it causes any real problems. Airlines, in an overabundance of caution, also tell us to put our telephones into “airplane mode” even though we likely have all either ignored or forgotten to do that from time to time with no adverse effects.

This suggests that before 6G rolls out, the FAA really needs to rethink its process or it will do the U.S. economy tons of damage given we already lag countries we compete with, like China, in technology rollouts. And technologies like 5G and 6G will be critical to maintaining our competitive technological edge.

Also read: 5G’s Latest Advances Include Satellite Support, P2P Connectivity, Long Battery Life

Hardening Aircraft Against Radio Waves

We exist in a relatively hostile environment. And this is particularly concerning regarding aircraft. Our biggest terrorist event was on 9/11/2001 when terrorists used commercial airlines to take out the twin towers. This was something we should have anticipated but didn’t.

FedEx recently requested anti-missile technology to protect against ground-based attacks from bad actors, but the FAA wants to first review the tech, a position I expect would have changed if an aircraft had been downed by a missile, which ironically appears to have happened once. FedEx, in my opinion, is right to ask for the help but, I expect, we also should be looking at drone and radio defenses as well.

If the planes are vulnerable to a powerful radio, either in or around the plane, that is a problem because  buying a high-powered radio or just swiping 5G equipment from a remote tower and firing that equipment up under an airport glide path would be a ton easier and safer than trying to do the same thing with a ground-to-air missile.

While carriers have agreed to, over the short term, slow down their efforts near airports, bad actors aren’t part of that agreement and broadcasting out that high-powered radios could down aircraft, if true, would seem to be very foolish given we clearly have folks that want to down aircraft.

5G and 6G waves can “penetrate” obstructions, which means that your phones will work in remote or sheltered environments. If cockpit instruments aren’t hardened against these technologies, it won’t be safe to fly now and especially in the future when 6G becomes available. But even if you block 5G and 6G deployment near airports, if the planes aren’t hardened, they are still at risk. Now that we apparently have told the world that planes are vulnerable to high-powered radio waves, how long before someone that does want to bring down a plane uses a powerful radio to do so?

5G is Likely Already Safe for Planes

5G should be safe for planes after years of testing, and the initial rollouts in other parts of the world haven’t produced any critical problems. However, the FAA and carriers are concerned that planes aren’t hardened enough for this technology, but this problem should have been corrected in planes years before 5G was deployed, not months or years after.

6G is expected to be vastly more powerful, reaching inside mountain tunnels, businesses and homes, and is potentially far more disruptive than 5G would be. In addition, if radios can be used to down planes, then planes need to be hardened against them right now, before a plane crashes, and long before 6G (due in around 5 to 6 years) becomes available. Waiting until days before a rollout is way the heck too late to surface problems like this.

Countries need to be able to roll out new technology like 5G timely and successfully, particularly technology that improves productivity. If entities like the FAA don’t do their job, this won’t be possible. So maybe it’s time for the FAA to step up to 5G and make sure planes are hardened against future radio threats, be they commercial rollouts or focused attacks.

Read next: Seven 5G Applications of the Future

Rob Enderle
Rob Enderle
As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.

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