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Pilots fear 'C-band' 5G could interfere with avionics

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John Shea, Helicopter Association International Director of Government Affairs, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the concerns of 5G frequencies interfering with flight mechanisms for both helicopters and major airlines.

Video transcript

- We need to talk about it now. John Shea is Helicopter Association International Director of Government Affairs. And not many of us are pilots. I certainly am not. So help us understand, we get that you can have interference within the band where the transmissions are taking place. I guess it's the same for helicopters as it is for the devices on airplanes. So what do we do about it?

JOHN SHEA: Yeah, that's right. And thank you for having me on. You know, you hit on something-- it's exactly the same. If anything, it's actually more of an issue for helicopters if you consider the fact that we're flying much lower, in urban environments and in places where we're likely to see 5G towers come out first.

So this is definitely a concern for us. And we've got certain helicopter missions that are really critical to this nation. Not just the economy with offshore, but with air med and firefighting and law enforcement. So I think there's a real public interest in this issue. Of course, we understand that the commercial airlines have been kind of front and center, but I think folks are starting to realize that we've got a big problem on our hands if we're not flying.

- John, this is Emily here. So what is the solution in this case? Is there a way for these new 5G signals to operate while avoiding this kind of interference with aircraft and helicopters, in particular, that you're talking about?

JOHN SHEA: So the FAA, in close partnership with industry and the radio altimeter manufacturers-- that's the critical piece of safety equipment that measures the distance from the ground to the aircraft-- have been in communication for some time. And they've been trying to identify certain areas and radiuses from the towers where the interference will be an issue. And there are certain mitigations that may be available to operators and pilots that mitigate some of the interference concerns.

Those could be filters and, again, maintaining a safe distance. But the issue that we're running into is there's a number of different configurations with helicopters and radio altimeters. So the aircraft varies and the radio altimeter varies, and a simple filter will not work in most circumstances.

And the bigger issue is we're looking at being years away from having a 5G-resistant radio altimeter. So this problem is one that doesn't have a silver bullet anytime soon. And that's why we've been pushing back so hard to get the FCC to press pause until we can figure out exactly what's going on and how we can mitigate it.

- If we heard correctly, though, five years. Is it realistic to delay the implementation of 5G for five years? Is there some other alternative that gets everybody safe, because safety is first, but gets us to where we're headed?

JOHN SHEA: Well, you know, I completely understand the situation where the wireless carriers are right now. They purchased for $80 billion the C-band spectrum, with very clear direction that they would be able to turn on on December 5th. And they have delayed twice now, and set agreements with the FAA. However, the mitigations that they have offered voluntarily only are in place for six months. So we're looking at a situation where we're going to have to be updating equipment and what are called notice to airmen and AMOCs, which are an alternative means of compliance, almost on a quarterly basis.

So while I know five years seems like a long way away, and that's not something-- a number that we're particularly pushing for, we're trying to find a way to coexist, but in the current environment and with the unknowns that we have in front of us, it seems very premature to turn on at this point. And that's really what we've been trying to say, is let's really understand this issue before we move forward and start jeopardizing some of the safety of life missions that we conduct. So.

- So John, after January 19, when AT&T, Verizon, these telecommunication providers have said that they will delay this rollout until, what should consumers and passengers be looking out for in order to make sure that they're still flying on aircraft and maintaining their safety, as well?

JOHN SHEA: Well, you know, I think-- I know the airlines are taking this very serious, and as are the manufacturers. They're just-- I mean, the communication and the work that's happening around the clock in order to maintain safety, I believe that plus the FAA, they're-- they've taken a very conservative approach to safety, and their exclusion zones and protection zones that they're providing for the 1,600 plus NOTAMs that are-- notice to air missions that protect a certain airspace area.

But the traveling public, I mean, I think they're going to be looking at a very difficult situation come January 19. COVID has already caused a very massive disruption to the airlines, but as far as cancellations and delays, that's only going to be exacerbated by what we're looking at with 5G. So I think, you know, they can expect to hear from the airlines. And they'll hear plenty, I'm sure.

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