Europe Has 5G. Here Is Why It Hasn't Messed Up the Airlines. --
By Jack Denton
The U.S. aviation and telecommunications industries are waiting for regulators to assess whether the rollout of 5G poses a safety risk for aircraft.
Airlines for America, which represents American (ticker: AAL), Delta (DAL), FedEx (FDX), UPS (UPS) and others, filed an emergency petition last week with the Federal Communications Commission to stop deployment of 5G in the U.S.
) and Verizon (VZ
) announced Tuesday that they would delay the launch of the next-generation wireless technology by two weeks after a request from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Verizon, at least, seems to hope that 5G will be up and running by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Europe has 5G and air travel and cargo shipments continue safely. It hasn't wreaked the havoc Airlines for America warned about.
Why the difference? There could be a number of factors at play, experts told Barron's.
One thing is for sure: a green light for 5G in Europe doesn't come from a lack of caution among regulators. After all, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) last month warned about the potential risk of interference from 5G near airports -- in the U.S.
The EASA said at the time that "no risk of unsafe interference has been identified in Europe." Instead, the regulator cited the Federal Aviation Administration, which saw specific risk in the U.S. due to the implementation of potentially higher 5G ground station power emissions early this year.
The source of more wariness in the U.S. may stem from the guts of the radio technology itself.
The issue at hand is whether signals from 5G radio bands -- intended for devices -- could interfere with aircraft altimeters, which are crucial instruments that tell pilots the altitude of their plane. Radar altimeters are close neighbors to 5G in the radio spectrum.
This potential problem is most pronounced upon landing when 5G stations on the ground are emitting close to an altimeter, or 5G smartphones are transmitting within the plane. This explains why regulators are focused on the safety impact around airports. George Holmes, the chair and CEO of Resonant(RESN) a 5G industry player, told Barron's that the difference between the U.S. and Europe stems from allocated frequencies for 5G, and their proximity to the defined band for altimeters.
Resonant is a Nasdaq-listed company that designs radio frequency filters, which are used to isolate signals from the right band while blocking unwanted noise from elsewhere in the radio spectrum. These filters are critical in 5G applications.
In the U.S., 5G is allocated to a range of between 3.7GHz and 3.98GHZ, which is closer to the 4.2GHz-4.4GHz frequency for altimeters than in Europe, which has allocated the 3.4GHz-3.8GHz range for 5G. Holmes said that in Europe altimeter filters will be better at stopping 5G signals, which will result in less potential interference.
"We are dealing with very low probabilities but extremely devastating consequences," Holmes said. "We are still in the early stages of 5G deployments and usage, so this interference problem remains a potential for the future."
"Longer term, this highlights the need for high-performance filters for all of the different technologies to co-exist above 3GHz," he added.
For its part, the CTIA -- a trade group representing the U.S. wireless communication industry -- underscores that nearly 40 countries already use 5G in the region of the radio spectrum shared with altimeters, with no impact on aviation.
The CTIA cited the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which considers a 200MHz "guard band" protecting radar altimeters to be sufficient. When the FCC allocated space in the radio spectrum for 5G wireless services in early 2020, it left a 220MHz space between these services and the band for radar altimeters.
Divergent decisions among regulators in the European Union and U.S. could also be a matter of politics.
Jonathan Atkin, a managing director at RBC Capital Markets specializing in telecommunications, told Barron's that the difference may be mostly due to interagency dynamics within the U.S. government that don't apply in Europe."