You’ve probably noticed a lot of headlines about 5G recently. Understandably, you might have questions. Why is 5G in all the headlines recently? Is it safe to fly? Should your phone be super fast now? Hasn’t 5G been around for years? We’ve got answers to these questions and more.

Update: AT&T and Verizon have reached a deal with the FAA that almost makes this non-issue no longer an issue. Details below:


Update 1/28: Here’s the latest from the FAA:

The FAA used this data to determine that it is possible to safely and more precisely map the size and shape of the areas around airports where 5G signals are mitigated, shrinking the areas where wireless operators are deferring their antenna activations. This will enable the wireless providers to safely turn on more towers as they deploy new 5G service in major markets across the United States.

Also related: the FAA has approved 90% of commercial planes as unaffected by 5G C-band towers.


Why is 5G in the news?

5G, the next generation of cellular service after 4G LTE, has been around for a few years now. A number of Android phones were first to work with 5G, and Apple brought 5G support to iPhones in 2020 and iPads last year.

What’s new with 5G is C-band spectrum, which includes radio waves previously used with those gigantic dishes people used to have in their yard for satellite TV. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) cleared and auctioned off this spectrum for use as 5G cellular service last year.

Verizon and AT&T together spent $68 billion last year to use these radio frequencies. Then the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a concern filed by American airline companies a month before 5G C-band spectrum was scheduled to be activated.

After a voluntary six-week delay, both AT&T and Verizon have started activating 5G C-band towers across the country as of January 19, 2022. T-Mobile also purchased a few billion dollars worth of C-band spectrum last year, but it won’t be used until next year and isn’t the backbone of the carrier’s 5G network.

Is it safe to fly?

The concern expressed by executives of airline companies to the FAA involved a risk of 5G C-band spectrum interfering with airplane safety equipment.

Specifically, the concern is over the potential risk of 5G C-band towers near airports screwing with radio altimeters on airplanes before landing. Radio altimeters are used to determine how far above ground planes are during flight, which in turn informs navigation systems and landing gear.

This issue only applies to airports with low visibility during landing when altimeter data is crucial.

For now, AT&T and Verizon have agreed to hold off on broadcasting 5G C-band spectrum from towers near airports, but 5G towers elsewhere can broadcast C-band spectrum starting January 19.

So, at the moment, no one should be concerned about airline safety over 5G C-band spectrum.

But is flight risk real?

What about when AT&T and Verizon eventually start broadcasting C-band spectrum from 5G towers that are near airports? The FAA is finally making progress on providing guidance to airlines about which planes are cleared to fly near 5G C-band towers.

As for whether or not 5G C-band spectrum actually interferes with airplane safety equipment, the FAA doesn’t actually know yet.

“If there’s the possibility of a risk to the flying public, we are obligated to restrict the relevant flight activity until we can prove it is safe,” the FAA said on the day that 5G C-band went live.

For now, the FAA has approved 62% of the U.S. commercial fleet of aircraft for flight near 5G C-band towers. That’s up from 45% a few days ago. This is based on one of five approved altimeters being installed. Here’s the current list of planes cleared to safely land in low-visibility areas with 5G C-band towers nearby:

  • Boeing 717, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777
  • MD-10/-11
  • Airbus A300, A310, A319, A320, A321, A330, A340, A350, A380

The FAA hasn’t approved altimeters used in regional jets yet, but the regulator says data is currently being studied.

We can probably expect some altimeters in use to not be approved. Who funds the required equipment upgrade is probably on the top of airline CEO minds, especially after the government scored over $80 billion in total from the C-band spectrum auction last year.

The FAA has also acknowledged the fact that 5G C-band has been live in Europe for a while already without issue. In short, U.S. airspace is more complex, and aviation safety standards are higher. The most meaningful answer provided is that the U.S. doesn’t have the safety standard that antennas be tilted forward to limit interference like in France.

A newly published document by the FAA provides more specifics on the progress of this issue.

Using 5G C-band

Alright, now for the good stuff! When will 5G C-band spectrum be useful for you? Apple supports C-band on all iPhones that have 5G radios. This includes all iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 models.

Next, you’ll need to be in a market where your carrier is using C-band spectrum with 5G towers.

AT&T customers will see the 5G+ symbol in the iPhone status bar when using C-band spectrum. As of January 19, AT&T is using C-band spectrum in Austin, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Orlando, and South Florida.

Verizon customers will see 5G UW in the iPhone status bars when C-band spectrum is available. Verizon says over 100 million people across 1700 cities can use C-band spectrum. Check Verizon’s coverage map to see if your city is included.

5G promises faster speeds and lower latency for data transfer, and C-band spectrum is an important part of AT&T and Verizon’s plans to deliver on that promise. If you’ve been disappointed by 5G performance on these carriers, you should be able to raise your expectations with 5G+/5G UW.

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About the Author

Zac

Zac covers Apple news, hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour podcast, and created SpaceExplored.com.