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The big 5G fix for airplanes will cost just $26M

The battle between the US wireless industry and the US airline industry reached the highest levels of the federal government. But it will only cost $26 million to fix.

Mike Dano

January 10, 2023

4 Min Read
The big 5G fix for airplanes will cost just $26M

The years-long, high-stakes public relations battle between the US airline industry and the US wireless industry appears to be heading toward a final conclusion. And the final price tag for the solution? $26,049,810.

That finding, from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is pretty incredible. It's the total cost of replacing radio altimeters on around 180 airplanes and putting new radio altimeter filters onto another 820 – all of the remaining planes involved in the situation. The modifications are designed to eliminate the potential for 5G transmissions in C-band spectrum to interfere with airplane altimeters, which can be used in takeoffs and landings in low-visibility environments.

In a federal filing, the FAA broke down all the estimated costs in the $26 million figure: For example, each filter costs around $4,000 and installation costs are around $85 per hour.

To put this all into perspective, the $26 million it will cost to modify all the altimeters in question is about 0.027% of the $95 billion that Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and others spent on C-band spectrum during an FCC auction in 2021. It's also roughly 0.186% of the $13.9 billion that satellite operators including SES and Intelsat are getting to modify their operations to make room for 5G in the C-band.

Further, $26 million is a pretty incredible amount considering the fight between the US airline industry and the US wireless industry reached the highest levels of the federal government early last year.

"My administration is committed to rapid 5G deployment, while minimizing disruptions to air operations and continuing to maintain the world's safest airspace," President Biden himself said in a statement almost exactly one year ago, following an agreement by AT&T and Verizon to delay their 5G launches around airports. "For the last few months, my administration has been convening technical experts at the FAA, the FCC, and from the wireless and aviation industries to discuss a solution that allows the expansion of 5G and aviation to safely co-exist."

Figure 1: President Biden. (Source: Geopix/Alamy Stock Photo) President Biden.
(Source: Geopix/Alamy Stock Photo)

Based on the FAA's new filing, it appears that the airline industry has been somewhat recalcitrant in providing the details of what it might cost to update aircraft altimeters so they won't be affected by 5G transmission in C-band spectrum.

"In Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin AIR-21-18R2, the FAA requested radio altimeter retrofit plans, timelines, and completion information from the aviation industry. The FAA did not receive comprehensive data, but based on the limited information the agency did receive, the FAA extrapolated impacts across industry," according to the agency. "Based on that information, the FAA roughly estimates that almost 7,000 airplanes on the US registry are already equipped or are being retrofitted to address radio altimeter interference tolerance before publication of this AD [Airworthiness Directive], or are not operated under 14 CFR Part 121, and thus would only require AFM [airplane/aircraft flight manual] revisions to comply with this AD as proposed. Based on information received, some operators will comply with the proposed modification by replacing the radio altimeter and others by installing an externally mounted filter."

Some industry observers offered suitably exasperated reactions to the FAA's final price tag.

"Estimated $26 million cost ... is trivial compared to auction revenue. FCC would have created a $100 million fund without blinking, had they been asked," tweeted Harold Feld of public interest group Public Knowledge.

"So the whole #FAA5G dustup ends up being over $26 million worth of upgrades?" tweeted Joe Kane, the director of broadband and spectrum policy at ITIF, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute.

Overall, the whole airplanes vs. 5G debacle has been a complete mess from the start. It's only fitting that the ultimate solution to the problem – to be implemented by next year – is equally ridiculous.

Related posts:

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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