FAA says $26M will cover costs to prevent 5G interference

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) new directive requiring airplanes in the U.S. to install 5G C-band tolerant radio altimeters or compatible RF filters by February 24, 2024, contained a surprising figure. The FAA estimates that the total price-tag to make these modifications to airplanes is just $26 million.

That’s a small price to pay to put an end to what amounted to a multi-year battle between the U.S. airline industry and wireless operators. The FAA estimates that out of 7,993 airplanes on the U.S. registry only about 180 airplanes will need radio altimeter replacements and about 820 will need radio altimeter filters. This fix is necessary, according to the FAA, to eliminate potential 5G transmissions in the C-band spectrum from interfering with airplane altimeters, which are used during take-off and landing.

As many in the industry noted, this entire debacle over the C-band could have been avoided if there had just been better coordination between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) when it auctioned the C-band spectrum and the FAA.

“Clearly, if the FAA and FCC were working more cordially and put out this estimate much earlier, the issue would have been resolved without fanfare or public hoopla,” said Prakash Sangam, founder and principal at Tantra Analyst. “In my view, the direct and indirect cost of all resources, including from the government, stakeholders, and media spent on the issue, is far higher than the paltry $26 million.”

Sangam added that while not justified, AT&T and Verizon probably would have easily agreed to pay the $26 million to the airlines rather than having to spend time and resources creating exclusion zones around airports.

Sangam is referring to Verizon and AT&T’s agreement to turn off transmitters and make other adjustments to their 5G networks near about 50 airports identified by the FAA last January. The exclusion zones were created to minimize potential 5G interference with aircraft instruments during low-visibility landings.

Another possible solution that would have avoided the back-and-forth bickering between the airlines and the wireless industry is if the FAA had provided the estimated cost earlier and the FCC could have added that cost to the payments the C-band spectrum auction winners paid when they were awarded their licenses.

“The FCC could have added this to the payments that the C-band auction winners had to pay to the FSS incumbents (Intelsat, SES), on top of the $81.2 billion bid in the auction (which all went to the Treasury),” said Michael Calabrese, director of Wireless Future Program at the Open Technology Institute at New America.

Either way, U.S. wireless operators are relieved to have this battle behind them. “The FAA’s schedule for altimeter updates is reasonable and practical. 5G in the C-band coexists safely with air traffic and we look forward to continuing to work together with all stakeholders to meet the FAA’s deadlines,” said CTIA, the wireless association, in a statement.

Likewise, UScellular, which has been involved in discussions with the FAA ahead of its planned C-band deployment, said the following: “We’ve made significant progress with the FAA and feel confident we can deploy our C-band spectrum on time. That’s what’s best for rural America.”