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HAI: FCC failed to consider rotorcraft when locating 5G towers

By Dan Parsons | February 4, 2022

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 40 seconds.

In rolling out its new network of 5G cell towers, telecom giants and government regulators did not consider whether those towers were near any heliports or the tens of thousands of helicopter air ambulance landing sites in the U.S., according to the head of Helicopter Association International.

“We have no indication that they tried to avoid any of our known heliports,” HAI president and CEO Jim Viola told the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation Feb. 3.

Helicopter operations, which take place at much lower altitudes than airline flights, could conduct their entire flight within the zones of potential 5G interference. Bell Photo

Neither the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nor the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), considered whether 5G towers were emitting signals near the 55 public-use heliports and anywhere from 6,533 to 8,533 helicopter air ambulance landing sites in the U.S., Viola said. 

AT&T and Verizon Communications activated the first set of 5G communications towers on Jan. 19, amid concern from the aviation industry they could interfere with radio (or radar) altimeters, the instruments that tell airplanes and helicopters how far they are above the ground.

The Jan. 19 rollout marks the debut of C-band 5G service, which promises speedier cell service for smartphones. Of particular concern in the U.S. is 5G C-band in the range of 3.7 to 3.98 gigahertz, which the telecom companies spent millions to secure for their own use.

As well as measuring a helicopter’s distance from the ground, radar altimeters feed altitude data to other critical safety systems like terrain avoidance warning systems (TAWS), enhanced ground proximity warning systems (EGPWS) and automatic flight controls that perform hover holds and other maneuvers. 

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson took a verbal beating from lawmakers on both sides of the political divide, who chastised both the FAA and FCC for failing to communicate until the 11th hour before rollout. 

“We have found ourselves in this absolutely ridiculous, inexcusable situation, after knowing for years that there were challenges here, that there were issues here … where at the very last minute there are claims, cries, demands, what have you to delay deployment,” Rep. Garrett Graves, a Republican from Louisiana, said in a statement typical of the grievances aired by committee members. “We saw two very capable agencies, or three if you count NTIA, just sit here and play chicken with one another.”

Committee Chair Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, called out the “extraordinary lack of communication and coordination between the FCC and the FAA.” DeFazio also pointed out the NTIA, the agency responsible for arbitrating between the two agencies and telecommunications industry, had five interim chiefs under the Trump administration and now has an officially appointed agency head.

“Hopefully the new head will be able to put them in their rightful place of coordinating as we move forward, because we are not done with this yet,” DeFazio said. “We have temporary measures in place, but there are going to be more towers put out there. The companies consider the towers, their heights, their strength, their location to be proprietary data. It can’t be proprietary data. You can’t just plop one down next to a critical approach into an airport. But that’s what was going on.” 

Dickson countered that while the FAA is solely focused on ensuring the U.S. aviation system remains safe, it has no power to regulate telecom companies and until December had never formally shared information on 5G or any other system with the FCC. The FAA specifically requested data on the strength and location of 5G towers on Nov. 2 but did not begin receiving it until late December, prompting a request that the FCC at least temporarily postpone the rollout. During a marathon hearing that featured nine witnesses, no one from the FCC showed up to testify. 

“Because we don’t regulate the telecommunications companies, we did not have the data that we needed until we were able to work with them directly,” Dickson said during just over two hours of testimony. “As we discovered, when we began that dialogue, the data that we were asking for from them, they actually had never provided to the government before. So that really was where we started from, in late December and early January, and has brought us to where we are now.”

“We knew that there was a risk to radio altimeters,” Dickson added. “But we didn’t have the ability to put specific mitigations in place and tailor them by fleet type and by airport until we had the specific deployment data from the telecommunications companies. Otherwise, we’re in a position where we have to assume that 5G C-band is blanketing the entire country.”

Before and since the 5G activation, almost all regulatory attention was paid to commercial air carriers, whether jetliner altimeters work in the presence of 5G and subsequently excluding the signals from major airports. To combat the impacts of 5G interference, the FAA implemented an alternative method of compliance, or AMOC, but the focus has been on part 121 air carriers. So far, no rotorcraft AMOC procedures have been formally released by the FAA.

“This is a Band-Aid approach to a permanent problem that is constantly changing,” Viola said. 

He said similar attention now needs to be paid to helicopter operations, which often occur at low altitude where cellular signals are more prevalent. Helicopters also operate in varied environments away from major airports. 

“We believe it is critical that the FAA continue the same level of urgency and commitment as they have had for commercial aviation to mitigate operational impacts on helicopter operations and the essential services they provide to save lives, protect communities and support jobs,” Viola told the subcommittee. “It must be recognized that rotorcraft operational environment is vastly different than the airlines. Helicopter operations, which take place at much lower altitudes than airline flights, could very well conduct their entire flight within the zones of this interference.”

The FAA did partially approve an HAI-led petition for exemption allowing helicopter air ambulance operators to continue flying with restrictions. This exemption will allow part 119 certificate holders authorized to conduct helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operations under part 135 to continue operations while employing radar altimeters that may not function normally due to 5G C-band interference. The relief will also allow the use of night vision goggles (NVGs) in HAA operations. 

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