Detroit Metro Airport to have 5G buffer zone to limit travel disruptions

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Romulus — Telecommunications companies have agreed to implement a 5G buffer zone around Detroit Metro Airport to help limit travel disruptions when they upgrade service to the region.

Detroit Metro will be one of 50 hubs across the country, including in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, at which wireless communication companies AT&T and Verizon have agreed to create buffer zones when they launch C-Band 5G services on Jan. 19, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday. 

“Safety and security are the top priority for the Wayne County Airport Authority," Erica Donerson, vice president of Communications & External Affairs for the authority, said Sunday.

"... Over the next six months, the Airport Authority looks forward to receiving additional information from the FAA regarding the effectiveness of these buffer zones to mitigate potential impacts of 5G interference, as well as guidance regarding next steps when the mitigation measures expire.”

An airplane prepares to takeoff from the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus.

The announcement followed warnings that the next planned stage of 5G cellular service rollout may interfere with airplane electronic systems that are critical for flight operation in bad weather, while airlines were experiencing thousands of flight cancellations and delays

The aviation industry contends that 5G signals could interfere with the altimeters that measure how high off the ground an aircraft is using radio waves, potentially endangering landings, particularly in low visibility or otherwise poor conditions.

"The agency sought input from the aviation community where the proposed buffer zones would help reduce the risk of disruption. Traffic volume, the number of low-visibility days and geographic location factored into the selection," the FAA said Friday. 

Telecommunications companies maintain that C-band has not caused harmful interference, said Nick Ludlum, senior vice president of communications for CTIA, which represents the industry in the U.S., Sunday. 

Ludlum added that C-band operates in nearly 40 countries where frequencies are operated from the same distance and at the same or higher power levels than U.S. providers plan to launch Jan. 19. 

AT&T and Verizon committed, however to the buffer zone through July 2022 in a Jan. 2 letter to the Department of Transportation and the FAA.

The measures they have committed to include limiting the power levels of C-Band 5G antennas directed above the horizon to reduce skyward emissions and reducing C-Band emissions on public helipads.

In addition, the power levels and antenna height of nearby C-band 5G sites will be limited to reduce their associated emissions in areas around runways, taxiways and gates for U.S. commercial and regional airports. 

The providers have also committed to reducing signal levels by at least 10 times on the runway or during the last mile of final approach and first mile after takeoff, the Jan. 2 letter said, and adopt the C-Band radio exclusion zones already in use in France and described as "one of the most conservative (approaches) in the world." 

"We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues,” the companies said in a statement Monday.

The wireless companies agreed earlier to an additional two-week launch delay while negotiations took place, pushing the planned early December launch date by around six weeks, said Ludlum. 

The companies had initially rejected the request which was made by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the FAA.

Twitter: @HaniBarghouthi