There have been concerns in the global aviation sector over the safety of Fifth Generation (5G) telecom network.
President Muhammad Buhari while formally launching the latest GSM telecom technology in Nigeria said it would be deployed to assist security agencies and play a vital role in improving the security situation in the country.
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“5G network is a viable platform for security institutions to leverage on, in tackling the security challenges that have bedeviled the country, by harnessing the potential of digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Robotics etc. which explore real time information for maximum efficiency,’’ Buhari had said.
He further disclosed that the “5G Network will enhance transparency and economic development as its potential for job creation is unprecedented.”
5G mobile network technology offers faster data speeds and lower latency. It allows several devices to be connected at one go and creates vast possibilities in innovation and transformation.
5G will enable seamless communication and interconnectivity between smart devices, a process commonly called the internet of things. It has the potential to accelerate the digital transformation of industries, according to officials.
The National Policy on 5G Networks was approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) on September 8, 2021, after a series of trials and multi stakeholder engagements to discuss perceived health risks.
In December 2021, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) conducted an auction of the 3.5GHz spectrum, in preparation for the deployment of 5G services.
The auction, which started with initial offer of $197.4 million, closed after 11 rounds at $273.6 million. Two companies, Mafab Communications and MTN Nigeria Plc, won the bid.
MTN Nigeria CEO Karl Toriola said: “5G is the future of network technology and offers incredible possibilities for new and enhanced services for our customers.
“Our successful bid presents an opportunity to be at the forefront of delivering these technological advancements to as many Nigerians as possible.
“The benefits of 5G are multi-faceted, and they hold the key to unlocking new avenues for the nation’s growth and development.
“It is far more than high-speed internet or faster-streaming speeds; 5G has implications for improved service delivery across every sector.
“It has the potential to transform our nation’s economy and make a difference in the daily lives of every Nigerian.’’
But the chief executives of major U.S. passenger and cargo carriers warned of an impending “catastrophic” aviation crisis as two US telecom companies AT&T (T.N) and Verizon (VZ.N) set to deploy new 5G service.
The airlines warned the new C-Band 5G service could render a significant number of widebody aircraft unusable, “could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas” and cause “chaos” for U.S. flights.
“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” wrote the chief executives of American Airlines (AAL.O), Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), United Airlines , Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) and others in a letter first reported by Reuters.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has warned that potential interference could affect sensitive airplane instruments such as altimeters and significantly hamper low-visibility operations.
“This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays,” the letter cautioned.
Action is urgent, the airlines added in the letter also signed by UPS Airlines (UPS.N), Alaska Air (ALK.N), Atlas Air (AAWW.O), JetBlue Airways and FedEx Express (FDX.N). “To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”
Reuters reported that AT&T and Verizon, which won nearly the entire C-Band spectrum in an $80 billion auction last year, agreed to buffer zones around 50 airports to reduce interference risks and take other steps to cut potential interference for six months.
They also agreed to delay deployment for two weeks until Wednesday, temporarily averting an aviation safety standoff, after previously delaying service by 30 days.
The CEOs of major airlines and Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun held a lengthy call with Buttigieg and Dickson on Sunday to warn of the looming crisis, officials told Reuters.
United Airlines separately warned the issue could affect more than 15,000 of its flights, 1.25 million passengers and snarl tons of cargo annually. United said it faces “significant restrictions on 787s, 777s, 737s and regional aircraft in major cities like Houston, Newark, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.’’
The airlines ask “that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles (3.2 km) of airport runways” at some key airports.
“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” they said.
The airlines added that flight restrictions will not be limited to poor weather operations.
“Multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will be deemed unusable causing a much larger problem than what we knew… Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded.”
One area of concern is whether some or all Boeing 777s will be unable to land at some key U.S. airports after 5G service starts, as well as some Boeing cargo planes, airline officials told Reuters.
NCC, NCAA, telcos allay fears
The Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof Umar Garba Danbatta said the manufacturers of the technology and services are saying that they are safe.
Similarly, the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) has said there is no greater risk of aviation interference with 5G networks than there is with any of the existing transmissions taking place in the frequencies adjacent to those used by radio-altimeters.
“’ALTON understands the concerns that industry stakeholders and customers of our members have been expressing in relation to the on-going debate in the United State of America (USA) over the risk of interference between 5G networks and aviation equipment.
‘’While the issues being discussed are highly technical, it is important to ensure they are explained and understood in the simplest possible terms and to highlight the major differences between the situation in the USA and the structures in place in Nigeria’’, ALTON chairman, Engr Gbenga Adebayo said.
Adebayo said mobile networks, just like radio, TV and other broadcast services, operate using bands of spectrum (frequency ranges) that are allocated by the government to allow the transmission of different services.
These bands of spectrum, he added, are deliberately structured in a way that prevents interference between them, by ensuring that what is called a ‘guardband’ exist between the frequencies.
He said: “The simplest way of understanding this is to use the radio station example. When trying to tune in to a specific station, you will find that you may pick up some of the transmission on either side of the exact frequency for that radio station.
“This is because radio transmissions are particularly likely to ‘overspill’ into space on either side of the transmission frequency that is being used. This same concept applies to all transmissions and is why guard bands are put in place.
“They are unused spectrum frequencies on either side of the allocated frequency for transmission, which ‘guard’ against the overspill.
‘’With the advancement in wireless technologies evidenced by the introduction of 4G and 5G wireless technologies, the extent of the potential ‘overspill’ of the transmission has reduced, lowering the risk of interference.
“Because of this, the guardband was reduced to 220MHz in the USA, creating more space for allocation of frequencies for 5G services. This is the core reason for concern in the American aviation industry.
“They believe that in a worst-case scenario, the outdated radio-altimeters, which ‘overspill’ significantly could pick up 5G network signals spectrum, which may impact the accuracy of the altitude calculation.
“However, media reports indicate that the America communications industry opine that extensive testing reveal there is no evidence to suggest that the safety of the aviation industry will be compromised in a real operating condition.’’
The telecom operators’ spokesman said the context in Nigeria is different. He said the guard band that exists between the spectrum frequencies allocated by the NCC for 5G services and those allocated to aviation industry remains in the region of 400MHz, in line with the guidelines instituted by National Frequency Management Council (NFMC), the government agency responsible for sectorial allocation of spectrum and the NCC.
Also, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has allayed fears in Nigeria over 5G interference with aviation safety, saying there is no cause for alarm.
The Director General of the NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu said the deployment of the 5G network in Nigeria will not cause any disruption to aviation safety.
He said, “For us in Nigeria, we don’t have auto landing authorisation, our flights don’t do auto-landing. So, for now, it is of no concern to us, but we are still monitoring the situation, see the development if there are issues that might affect us, then we will take the necessary action.”
Nuhu also explained that a critical component is called radio altimeter; the spectrum by which this equipment operates is close to that of the 5G.
“So, they are afraid of interference from the radio altimeter and giving aircraft erroneous indication and during aircraft approach landing when they are about 2,500ft or so above the ground. Usually, it is for flights that are put to land.”