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Is 5G a Bad Proposition for Aviation?

The upcoming rollout of 5G has conspiracy theorists blaming the technology on everything from COVID-19 to government mind control. But does it actually hold a threat to commercial aviation? Former pilot Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger co-wrote an editorial claiming one aspect of the next-generation technology could be risky for aviators.

The installation and rollout of 5G mobile communications technology has been a divisive situation across America. Conspiracy theorists claim to link the improved mobile data platform to everything from the COVID-19 pandemic, to government mind control. Beyond these wild ideas, is there a true potential threat that comes with 5G technology?

A group of three distinguished individuals, including retired pilot Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger, say that 5G could potentially interfere with global positioning satellites (GPS), and endanger both air and sea navigation. Sullenberger co-wrote an opinion in Aviation Week forwarding these allegations with former U.S. Coast Guard commandant Thad Allen and GPS lead architect Brad Parkinson.

“The FCC Has Failed to Protect GPS”

In their opinion piece, the trio decry a recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to allow Ligado Networks to build a 5G network within the L-Band spectrum. Although this could potentially forward American technology interests, the three say that building the network could interfere with the GPS systems.

“The FCC has failed to protect GPS, an incredibly valuable national treasure,” the men write in their opinion article. “The commission’s ruling benefits investors in one company but would do irreparable harm to millions of American GPS users.”

Citing U.S. Department of Transportation testing, the three say that if Ligado’s plan were to move forward, “all civil GPS applications would be threatened.” This includes GPS navigation for commercial aircraft.

Currently, all GPS signals run in the L-Band, because the waves can be read even through inclement weather and vegetation growth. The three argue that if Ligado’s L-Band 5G networks moves forward, it would create significant interference, which could create major problems for those relying on GPS navigation. The three say threats could include an enhanced “risk of midair collisions and controlled flight into terrain.”

“GPS has stealthily crept into every corner of our society, from agriculture to banking to emergency responders,” the three write in Aviation Week. “The Department of Homeland Security has said that all elements of our critical infrastructure are dependent on it. These myriad applications are in jeopardy.”

The three are among a growing number of people rallying against the Ligado 5G plan. The U.S. Department of Defense is also in opposition of the plan, based on the potential for GPS interruption.

Ligado Says 5G Won’t Hurt GPS Navigation

Although the opposition voices are growing, Ligado says their plan wouldn’t hurt the GPS infrastructure. Rather, in a blog post, the company claims their technology “helped make critical systems like GPS more resilient and reliable for everyone.” The technology group suggests that instead of arguing over spectrum allocation, the focus should be on winning the race to 5G rollout.

“Unfortunately, spectrum reallocation discussions among government and the wireless and satellite industries have all too often devolved into un-neighborly yelling matches predicated on the false notion that spectrum is a zero-sum game and should be hoarded at literally any cost,” Ashley Durmer, senior vice president of government relations and corporate communications for Ligado, writes on their blog. “What’s lost in these debates – aside from a lot of time that could be better used to make progress – is that we are all on the same team.”

timfountain July 31, 2020

The article confuses 5G and the Ligado network. Ligado plans to implement a terrestrial broadband network with frequencies adjacent to one of the GPS bands. Their operating frequencies are not part of 5G, so calling their network 5G, as per the 3GPP is stretching the truth and co-opting the 5G hype to help bamboozle consumers. They may use some of the underlying technologies, such as modulation schemes but that doesn't make it 5G. Personally, I hope their license is rescinded. There's far too much at stake for GPS to potentially be disrupted, or more likely degraded, by Ligado.

myisland July 31, 2020

Big Brother needs 5G to implement total world-wide surveillance.

Dougg July 30, 2020

I wonder who paid Sully to write that article. He offers not proof, he’s just making a claim. Getting people to use 5G is all about profits and convincing the public they need to get their emails and watch video a slit second faster than non-5G users paying a premium to do so. This is one of those products consumers did not ask for, but the tech community is telling us we do.

Kimo56 July 30, 2020

As a user of many GPS devices, “... winning the race to 5G rollout” is far less important than maintaining a reliable navigation system. The focus and motivation of the Technology Group is clearly rooted in profits over insuring no harm is done to the GPS system or those who use it to keep us safe.

stimpy July 30, 2020

Funny, actually WiFi 6e is more of an issue for Aviation.