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5G Smartphone Interference with Aircraft Equipment

5g newletter

Virtually everyone uses a smartphone and, as customers, we would like faster and faster service. 5G will provide that faster service; however, the frequency range that 5G networks use is very close to those used by aircraft radio altimeters.

A radio altimeter system measures the vertical distance from the aircraft to the ground. It is generally active only when the aircraft is close to the ground, about 2,500 feet or less. The radio altimeter is obviously an important component of the aircraft.

For pilots, if your radio altimeter failed or started to provide erroneous or conflicting information, which systems in your aircraft would be affected? For many airplanes, the radio altimeter data is sent to the autothrottle, Traffic Collision Avoidance System, Ground Proximity Warning System, Weather Radar, Flight Control Computer for approach control, and many more. These are important systems; therefore, industry groups and regulators are sounding the alarm with regards to 5G.

Transport Canada issued a Civil Aviation Safety Alert (CASA) 2021-08 in June of 2021 which states in part:

“Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) is the spectrum regulator in Canada. ISED will allow 5G networks and technology in the frequency band 3450-3650 MHz following its auction in June 2021. Additionally, ISED… [will also] allow mobile wireless systems to operate in the frequency band 3650-4000 MHz for 2023. The frequency bandwidth allocated to 5G is close to one used by aircraft radio altimeters (4200-4400 MHz).”

5G is already live in 284 cities in the U.S. and over 380 in China. Many countries in Europe are also live. There are over 1,600 cities in 65 countries with 5G today. Canada has 5G in most major cities.

What Are The Risks to Aviation Safety?
The Canadian Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RCTA) produced a report which concluded there is a likelihood that 5G radio waves will interfere with radio altimeters. The greatest threat is undetected wrong height information given by the radio altimeter to the aircraft systems. Erroneous or no warnings at all could result in a loss of situational awareness of the cockpit crew.

What Can We Do as An Industry to Protect and Prepare Ourselves?
Many countries already have regulations or advisories for Portable Electronic Device (PED) use. As a crew and an operator, make sure these preventative measures are followed. Educating your clients to the rules is crucial. In Canada, the following rules apply:

  • All 5G PEDs in the cabin should be set to airplane mode or off completely.
  • 5G capable PEDs should not be allowed to connect to a 5G network.
  • If 5G PEDs are stowed in checked luggage, they should be off and protected from accidental activation.
  • If there is an emergency situation onboard and a smartphone is required, then the PED being used should only connect to a 3G or 4G network.
  • If the flight crew encounters a radio altimeter disturbance, the crew must report it to Air Traffic Services as soon as possible.

If you operate internationally, then make sure to research any country-specific 5G mitigation measures. As always, prepare for a successful trip. And listen to our soon-to-be-released podcast on 5G and aviation.

– Brent Fishlock, Technical Advisor Team Lead,

aviation professional

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