Safety First: 5G Implementation Near Airports Stalled Over Altitude Safety Issues

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New Delhi: A committee led by renowned scientific advisor Ajay Kumar Sood has been assigned the task of addressing the contentious issue of implementing 5G services in and around airports amidst concerns over aircraft and passenger safety.

According to senior officials familiar with the matter, a broader committee has been established “to address the 5G issue” as consensus could not be reached on timelines for replacing legacy aircraft radio altimeters – a critical device that provides crucial altitude information to flight crews and onboard aircraft systems during landings in low visibility conditions.

Despite discussions between the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), telecom companies, airline operators, and aircraft manufacturers, the issue has remained unresolved for over a year.

In November 2022, the DoT instructed all mobile operators not to deploy any 5G sites in the 3,300-3,670 MHz band within 2.1 km of both ends of airport runways to avoid potential interference with aircraft radio frequencies. However, this measure was intended as temporary until aircraft altimeters were replaced. Telecom operators have raised concerns that despite over 15 months since the launch of 5G in India, they are still prohibited from offering next-generation services around airports, leading to revenue losses.

Last September, India’s leading telecom companies urged the civil aviation ministry to press the DGCA to set a deadline for all airlines operating in India to upgrade their legacy radio altimeter systems.

Boeing and Airbus, for their part, informed the government that altimeters need to be replaced for a permanent solution to 5G connectivity issues at airports. However, this decision rests with airlines and the DGCA regarding procurement orders. The aircraft manufacturers indicated that they would be able to supply altimeters to countries outside the US only after December 2023. The situation has reached a critical point as airlines have yet to place procurement orders. Initial estimates suggest that around 500 Boeing aircraft and approximately 300 Airbus aircraft in India require retrofitting.

A radio altimeter is designed to operate within a bandwidth of 200 MHz in the frequency band 4200 MHz to 4400 MHz. In India, the DoT auctioned spectrum in the 3300-3670 MHz band for 5G. Despite a sufficient guard band between the two frequencies, concerns remain about interference as modern aircraft altimeters operate on much wider frequencies.

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