India has just started rollout of 5G networks after much anticipation and years of delay. Service operators expect to bring next-generation cellular connectivity to every city in the world’s second-largest wireless market from the end of 2023. But while the rollout is currently in its initial phase, New Delhi last week ordered telecom operators not to roll out 5G infrastructure around areas near airports to avoid interference with flight operations.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the government body that manages telecommunications operations in the South Asian nation, in its recent order to telecommunications operators Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, directed to restrict their infrastructure allowing 5G networks in C-band (between 3.3 and 3.67 GHz) more than 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers) from the ends of runways at all airports in the country. He also ordered the three operators to limit the power output of their equipment installed after the given range.
The restrictions were applied in response to concerns raised by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). In September, the Aviation Department suspected that 5G networks operating on the C-band spectrum would interfere with flight altimeters – the instrument that helps pilots maintain required altitude during flight.
The airline industry in the United States raised similar concerns in January when AT&T and Verizon activated their C-Band 5G networks. In June, the Federal Aviation Administration said stakeholders in the aviation and wireless industries had identified steps to protect commercial flights from disruptions from 5G interference and enabled AT&T and Verizon to continue improving their service at certain airports with the least risk of disrupting flight schedules.
Shortly after the network disruption problems emerged in the United States, India’s Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in February insured industry that the South Asian country would not face such problems.
“In the United States, especially in older aircraft, the altimeter frequency is close to that used to render 5G services,” he said at a press conference, adding that the frequency used by flight altimeters in India was far removed from the designated frequencies. for 5G services.
PD Vaghela, Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, made a similar statement in an interview with the English daily Times of India in January.
“India will have no problem. On the face of it, there is no problem for the aviation industry in India regarding the deployment of 5G spectrum,” he said.
C-band frequencies – part of the midband spectrum – lie between 4 and 8 GHz. Telecom operators in the United States have C-band including a frequency range of 3.7 to 3.98 GHz, which is possible to intercept the altimeter range between 4.2 and 4.4 GHz in some cases. However, the Indian government auctioned the middle spectrum in the 3.3-3.6 GHz range.
Peeyush Vaish, partner and telecommunications industry leader at Deloitte, said Indian carriers have a separate 530 MHz separation from the international altimeter band. No interference has been reported between 5G and aircraft frequencies in Europe, South Korea and Japan – all of which have launched 5G services based on 5G bands similar to those allocated in India, he said. declared.
Nevertheless, due to the direction of the telecommunications department, telecom operators in the country are evaluating a series of steps, several sources familiar with the development told TechCrunch.
Airtel has so far rolled out its infrastructure to enable 5G connectivity at four airports in the country, while Jio was also planning to make a similar move in the coming days.
Due to the restrictions, Airtel and Jio have to reevaluate their plans. The former must also turn off his radios for the time being.
The chief executive of the DoT and the independent body of Indian telecom operators, the Cellular Operators Association of India, did not respond to requests for comment.
Experts say consumers near airports are unlikely to get 5G on their compatible devices.
The directive indicates that a user of Aerocity in New Delhi or Santacruz in Mumbai may not benefit from 5G for now, a source working at a telecom operator who asked not to be named told TechCrunch. . The impact, however, would be less in cities like Bangalore, where airports are miles from local residences, they said.
Deloitte’s Vaish said that while current network infrastructure is not likely to be affected due to the restrictions, construction of new towers near city airports could be delayed for the time being.
Even though the directions are limited to specific C-Band network frequencies, the impact seems significant as telcos consider the particular band for widespread 5G connectivity across various devices.
Amitoj Arya, Partner at EY, said that since the interference problem does not affect all airlines and is limited to a specific aircraft type, 5G can be rolled out gradually while upgrading affected aircraft with interference resistant altimeters. He also suggested that telecom operators may need to run 5G services around airports with reduced power levels and technological interventions on 5G antennas.
“5G has the potential to mitigate several pain points of airports and airlines, such as aircraft data analytics and predictive maintenance, autonomous tarmac operations, automated baggage handling, AI-based passenger monitoring and control, etc. Therefore, it is essential to identify ways to allow 5G technology near airports without compromising passenger safety and security,” he said.
The DGCA is studying the replacement of the filters of the radio altimeters of the planes to overcome the roadblock of the telecom operators. However, it would take months for all flights to get the upgraded systems.