Never have so many technologies– such as cloud, edge computing, AI and virtual reality –coalesced around this standard.
This has allowed the entire industry to dream about what it can bring to end users. And combined with the digital propulsion that the Covid ‘techcelerator’ has caused, it has created the perfect conditions for a “quantum leap” (as termed by my good friend, analyst Chetan Sharma) in the way society uses technology. It would seem we are truly on the cusp of a golden age, a new roaring twenties that will bring the most exciting tech advancement in living memory.
Or so you would think...
On the flip side, since the turn of the year, we’ve seen media outlets churning out headlines such as:
- 'AT&T, Verizon delay rollout of 5G near airports as airlines warn of 'incalculable' damage to economy’ USA Today January 17th
- ‘US airlines warn 5G could ground planes and wreak havoc at airports’ China Morning Post January 18th
- ‘Airline CEOs warn 5G could leave thousands of travellers stranded and cause other havoc’ Fox Business January 17th
And on January 19 this year, The Wall Street Journal’s daily tech podcast led with the story “Why the 5G rollout is raising concerns among aviation regulators”, taking some very negative positions, such as statement about US operators halting their entire 5G plans.
So, what’s going on and why is it important to get all the facts?
To get things straight, the issue at hand relates entirely to the 5G C-band, which operates between 3.7 and 3.98Ghz. Yet the Federal aviation authority (FAA) is also concerned there could be “bleed through” to aircraft radio altimeters (which allows planes to land in bad weather), which operate between 4.2Ghz and 4.4Ghz. This is despite it having been tested in the lab and the theory disproven. Even more so, these frequencies have been used extensively in other countries with no ill effects. Nonetheless, to prioritise public safety, the FAA has asked Verizon and AT&T to delay their rollout by a month so that more analysis can be conducted. The current agreement is that rollout can proceed on the condition that service providers avoid any C-Band deployments within 2 miles of any airport runways for six months.
So why just AT&T and Verizon?
If we turn the clock back almost a year, the FCC held the (now historic) C band auction. As background, this particular mid-band spectrum allows the service providers to roll out high speed 5G services to urban metro areas and provide the ubiquitous coverage that will cover most of the US population. The biggest winners were Verizon, who paid $45 billion and AT&T, who paid $23 billion. This allows them to build on their existing rollouts of low-band (rural) and high-band (high density areas such as sports stadiums), which are already servicing millions with 5G services across the US.
From a safety perspective, it’s important to note that T-Mobile has already rolled out extensive mid-band spectrum across the US to around 200 million points of presence. And although it’s not C band, there have been literally zero concerns around the mid-band 5G technologies currently employed by T-Mobile, which primarily operate on the 2.5 GHz frequency. This was spectrum T-Mobile inherited from its acquisition of Sprint, indeed the reason why the merger happened and has given it a distinct but temporary lead in the US race to 5G coverage. This is something that is central to T-Mobile’s marketing campaign in 5G, and their CTO Neville Ray has been active on Twitter to distance the magenta brand from this media storm.
So, what does this mean?
Firstly, FAA’s recommendations won’t prevent 5G from being rolled out in the US. And contrary to some of the headlines, it’s already well underway, making the country the leader amongst western nations of real 5G deployments. Adoption of 5G services too is increasing, with subscribers being incentivized by expanding 5G coverage availability, accelerating data speeds, aggressive 5G device promotions and the introduction of lower-priced 5G handsets.
Secondly, the issue only affects new C-Band deployments, is only around airports, and is only in effect until the analysis is complete. All existing 5G handsets and services are perfectly safe and contrary to some headlines, will not down aircraft.
Getting the truth out
5G as a technology, is no stranger to misinformation and conspiracy. Two years ago, it was blamed by conspiracy groups for propagating Covid-19. And while these theories were quickly and easily debunked by experts, it didn’t prevent social media and some irresponsible journalists from fanning the flames to the point that radio towers were being burned down and service provider engineers assaulted physically.
While the aviation issue is not a conspiracy theory, it has empowered some of these protagonists to resurrect some of their toxic and dangerous theories – driven home by the fact that FCC chairman, Ajit Pai had to go live on the media to reinforce that 5G won’t bring down planes.
So as 5G takes off (forgive the pun) and we start to realize its benefits to society, we too need to be careful not to sow any seeds of doubt about its safety. Because ultimately, if you look at the facts, the technology is destined to improve our lives beyond imagination.