You’re probably familiar with the desire to have electronic devices set to flight mode on airplanes. Have you ever wondered why?
Aviation navigation and communications have relied on radio services coordinated to minimize interference since the 1920s.
The digital technology currently in use is much more advanced than some of the older analog technologies we used 60 years ago. Research shows that personal electronic devices can create what is known as electromagnetic interference by emitting a signal in the same frequency band as aircraft communication and navigation systems. But in 1992, the US Federal Aviation Authority and Boeing investigated the use of electronic devices in aircraft interference in an independent study and found no problems with computers or other personal electronic devices during non-critical flight stages. Takeoffs and landings are considered critical phases.
The US Federal Communications Commission also began creating dedicated frequency bandwidths for different uses, such as cell phones and aircraft navigation and communications, so that they could not interfere with each other. Governments around the world have developed the same strategies and policies to avoid aviation-related response problems.
Why does the aviation industry ban the use of mobile phones while these global standards are in effect? One reason for this has to do with something you probably wouldn’t expect: Ground interference.
What is a ground parasite?
Wireless networks are connected by a series of towers. Networks can become overloaded if passengers flying over these ground networks are all using their phones. The number of passengers flying in 2021 was over 2.2 billion, only half of the number of passengers in 2019.
Of course, when it comes to mobile networks, the biggest change in recent years is the transition to a new standard. The current 5G wireless networks preferred for high-speed data transfer are causing concern for many in the aviation industry.
Radio frequency bandwidth is limited, but we are still trying to add more new devices to it. The aviation industry points out that the 5G wireless network bandwidth spectrum is very close to the reserved aviation bandwidth spectrum, which can cause interference with navigation systems near airports that assist aircraft landing.
Airport operators in Australia and the US have raised aviation security concerns linked to the rollout of 5G, but no such issues appear to have occurred in the European Union. Still, it may be prudent to limit cell phone use on airplanes while 5G related issues are resolved.
Many airlines now offer pay-as-you-go or free Wi-Fi services to their customers. Thanks to new Wi-Fi technologies, passengers can theoretically use their mobile phones to make video calls with friends or customers during the flight. But cellular network connection is still forbidden.
Another important issue is that 200 people can be together on an airplane and the inability of anyone to answer the questions of the cabin crew while talking on the phone can cause a disruption in service. Similarly, 100 people trying to talk on the phone at the same time in such a small space will create a serious noise problem.
However, 5G technology has begun to tap into the radio bandwidth of aircraft navigation systems, and we will need more research to answer the question of 5G’s interference with aircraft navigation during landings.