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Airlines are concerned 5G wireless service may affect the ability to land planes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Airlines and federal aviation regulators are in a standoff with big wireless companies over 5G - that's fifth-generation wireless technology. Verizon and AT&T agreed this week to delay their rollouts of 5G service by a few weeks to address concerns that it could interfere with some aircraft navigation systems. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The wireless industry calls 5G a game-changer - much stronger connectivity and faster download speeds that will make streaming or gaming better than ever. But the airlines, not so much. Just ask airline CEOs.

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SCOTT KIRBY: Senator, this is the biggest and most damaging potential issue facing us.

SCHAPER: That's United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby in a Senate committee hearing last month, where Southwest CEO Gary Kelly added this.

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GARY KELLY: I think if you were to ask us what our No. 1 concern is here in the near term, it is the deployment of 5G because the FAA has issued an airworthiness directive that would significantly impact our operations once it is deployed.

SCHAPER: The FAA is concerned that the C band of radio spectrum purchased by Verizon and AT&T for 5G sits too close to the band of spectrum used by radio altimeters on aircraft and could interfere with the navigation devices used during some takeoffs and landings. Air Line Pilots Association head Joe DePete told Yahoo Finance this week why that's a problem.

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JOE DEPETE: Now, radio altimeters on our aircraft determine not only the height above the ground - right? - in real terms - not just pressure altitude, but in real terms - above the terrain as we come in for a landing or we're taking off. But they're tied to many other systems in our aircraft.

SCHAPER: The FAA warns that if Verizon and AT&T roll out their 5G networks as originally planned, it would prohibit instrument landings, using altimeters at certain airports in poor weather conditions. That would force the airlines to delay, divert, reroute or cancel potentially huge numbers of flights. But not everyone agrees the situation is that dire.

TED RAPPAPORT: It's really not a sky-is-falling problem like you might read in the headlines.

SCHAPER: Electrical engineering professor Ted Rappaport is founding director of the research center NYU WIRELESS.

RAPPAPORT: The issue is that some of the older planes and older aircraft equipment that were built maybe 30 or 40 years ago do not have very good band-pass filters. They don't have very good filters on their receivers.

SCHAPER: Rappaport says it's kind of like the time when CB radios would interfere with TV sets. The solution, he says, is simple - to have 5G cell phone towers near airports reduce the power and direction of their signals and not use the frequencies closest to those used by aircraft altimeters while airlines and aircraft manufacturers work to upgrade their old equipment. He and the wireless carriers point out that 5G service has been successfully implemented near airports in other countries, though the FAA says those countries already mandate that cell towers near airports operate at reduced power as well as other mitigation steps.

Both sides have until January 19 to reach an agreement on 5G service. Without one, the airline industry may try to stop the 5G rollout in court.

David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.