We turn to health and safety concerns surrounding the latest mobile device technology: 5G. It's said to make our devices work better and faster. The telecom industry insists persistent concerns about risks with 5G are groundless. But the airline industry is taking some of them so seriously, it recently caused a major national incident. And Scott Thuman reports there’s still no firm resolution on what happens next.
Mid-January – between brutal winter storms and a new COVID variant – there was something else threatening to keep travelers grounded.
Lester Holt: “...why airline CEOs are warning 5G will cause catastrophic flight disruptions.”
Hundreds of passenger and cargo flights in danger of cancellation. The leaders of the major airlines begged the Biden administration to step in or face the prospect of massive flight disruptions. And all because Verizon and AT&T were about to switch-on new faster 5G mobile networks, which airlines and a federal agency said could cause major problems around more than 80 airports, including big hubs like Dallas, New York, and Chicago.
Nick Calio is CEO of Airlines for America, representing the major U.S. carriers.
Calio: It was kind of a hairy situation because the planes were going to stop. We had work orders in place to bring down the airplanes.
Scott: You were going to stop flights?
Calio: We had to. As an example, Scott, the 777s, the wide bodies that fly most of the cargo and fly most of the overseas flights, that fleet was going to be grounded. And you saw that Emirates and some other overseas carriers cancelled flights coming into the United States, because they might have been able to get the flights in, but if the towers had gone up that day, they wouldn't have been able to get them back out.
The reason for the alarm: Those new 5G mobile signals are near to the frequencies used by a crucial aircraft instrument called a radio altimeter, which precisely measures the distance between the aircraft and the ground. It is vital in bad weather.
Scott: What kind of scenarios are you afraid of happening?
Calio: Planes not being able to land in low visibility, not knowing the distance from the aircraft to the ground, as you're about to land, the other systems that I mentioned before. These are real concerns. The FAA and airlines cannot compromise on safety. We are the gold standard in the world on safety.
But January’s 5G aviation crisis left Verizon, AT&T, and the rest of the mobile phone industry frustrated, even angry. They’d spent years planning for it, and more than $80 billion to buy access to new radio frequencies to boost their networks.
Jonathan Adelstein: 5G is the next generation of wireless technology that enables even faster service. It enables more devices to be connected to the network. So, it enables a whole new world of the internet of things. And it's very much an evolution, from existing wireless technology.
Jonathan Adelstein represents the major mobile networks as president of the wireless infrastructure association. He says not only are new 5G signals safe for aircraft, but his industry already had the green light for the rollout from regulators at the FCC - the Federal Communications Commission.
Scott: Did you foresee any of this happening?
Adelstein: We were really surprised by it because the FCC, as the expert agency, cleared this spectrum, as not any harmful interference to any other users. And that is the agency that's the gold standard of expertise. So, when suddenly issues emerged, we were scratching our heads, wondering why would there be an issue now, when this has been thoroughly vetted and decided, and, in fact, 40 other countries are using exactly the same spectrum and having no issues whatsoever with aviation.
He’s right that 5G signals aren’t new and that other countries have already deployed without any reported effect on planes.
Adelstein: And you know how many problems there have been? None. Not one. This is completely theoretical, based on, I think, a misunderstanding of one flawed study. And there's no evidence of a real world problem here.
In the end, with just hours to go before potential chaos, the White House stepped in, stopping mobile phone carriers from flipping the switch on some towers near airports.
President Biden: What I’ve done is pushed as hard as I can to have 5G folks hold up and abide by what was being requested by the airlines until they could more modernize over the years so that 5G would not interfere with the potential of the landing.
Scott: This sounds like a massive foul up. Is it?
Calio: I would say it was a foul up, yes. I think that the FCC was not listening to the FAA and not taking it seriously. The White House got involved. The Department of Transportation got involved, happily. They were able to broker a deal that bought us some time initially. In that time, when we finally started getting data from the telecommunications companies about where the towers were going to be, the power that they were going to be emitting, the problem actually grew.
And now congress is involved, looking to find out how and why major government agencies seemingly weren’t talking to each other. Earlier this month, FAA Administrator Steve Dixon faced Congressman Garret Graves.
Graves: This is inexcusable. It's inexcusable to disrupt air operations, and I think it's inexcusable to delay or prevent the deployment of technology. How did we get ourselves in this situation?
Dixon: We tried for over a year and we were asking for this data. As it turns out, the FCC didn’t even have the data that we needed, and we discovered that when we started to work directly with the telecommunication companies. They had never had to think about how the signal would impact an airplane moving in three dimensions through space. And so it's certainly my hope, and I think all of us recognize, that the process did not serve anyone well in this particular case.”
But the airline debacle adds to existing concerns about the impact of 5G on people. As Full Measure previously reported, some experts, like Martin Pall, say the same technology could also pose serious health risks.
Sharyl: At least three expert medical groups have linked certain kinds of electromagnetic fields or EMFs to cancer, particularly childhood leukemia: The U.S. National Institute of environmental health sciences, a working group under the world health organization, and a European scientific committee - which studied cell phones in particular. Pall says there’s more to worry about.
Pall: We know that the EMFs impact the cells of our bodies, all the cells of our bodies, by activating some channels. And when they do that, they produce all kinds of effects. And those include neurological neuropsychiatric effects. They include reproductive effects, they include oxidative stress, which is involved in essentially all chronic diseases. So I'm deeply concerned about the situation.
Scott: There have still been some people who are just worried in general about 5G and what it may mean, not just when it comes to planes, but are there health risks?
Adelstein: 5G is the same as any other generation of wireless technology. The physics hasn't changed. There's nothing different about 5G. It's operating on similar frequencies, similar power levels. There's nothing different. So, if you've been using your cell phone safely, I bet you have, your whole life, it's not going to change under 5G.
But 5G is very much the future. And industry leaders say this concern, just like with airlines, won't stop progress. And despite a goal of improving communication, it was a lack of it, between the government and its agencies, and two giant industries, that, for now, leaves full 5G activation up in the air.