Takeoff of 5G service delayed near some U.S. airports


By: Nicholas J. Hubner

The largest airlines in the U.S. released a statement this week stating that the new 5G wireless service, if rolled out near airports, would interfere with aircraft technology and cause flight disruptions. The airline industry warned that thousands of flights may be grounded or delayed if the planned rollout took place near major airports. Subsequently, AT&T reported that it will postpone the new wireless service near some airports despite the previous plans to roll out the service. AT&T stated that it would delay turning on new cell towers near runways of some airports, but it is unclear how many towers. AT&T also represented that it would work with federal regulators to resolve a dispute over the potential for interference between the new 5G service and aircraft technology. The airline industry is seeking a ban of the new service within a two-mile radius of airport runways.  

The aircraft technology at issue, at least in part, is onboard altimeters or altitude meters. An altimeter is an instrument used to measure the altitude of an object, here an airplane, above a fixed level. A radar altimeter is used to measure height above ground level during landing in commercial (and military) aircraft. Radar altimeters are also a component of terrain avoidance warning systems – warning a pilot if the aircraft is flying too low or if there is rising terrain ahead.  

AT&T and Verizon have stated that their 5G equipment and service will not interfere with aircraft electronics and have pointed to the safe use of the technology in countries outside the U.S. The new 5G technology is aptly named because it is the fifth generation of cellular wireless technology. It is viewed as transformational because it provides increased bandwidth, allows more devices to be connected at the same time, and is so fast that connected devices receive near instantaneous responses from servers. The tradeoff for faster speeds is the transmission over relatively short distances – resulting in the need for more stations or receivers in more locations (as compared to 4G data transmission). See generally Brian X. Chen, What You Need to Know About 5G in 2020, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 2020). 

The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) statutory authority for limiting local regulation on the deployment of 5G wireless technology is contained in 47 U.S.C.S. §§ 253(a) and 332(c)(7) of the Telecommunications Act. Those provisions authorize the FCC to preempt any state and local requirements that prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting any entity from providing telecommunications services. See City of Portland v. U.S., 969 F.3d 1020, 1033 (9th Cir. 2020). 

While the dispute between commercial airlines and the telecom industry continues, FMG will continue to monitor the developments from the ground.