1. Home
  3. The advent of 5G

The advent of 5G


Although it has limitations, the benefits for aviation go beyond high-speed airborne data transfer rates.

Bizjet passengers expect hyper-convenience in the form of continuous Wi-Fi connectivity, even when traveling by air.
By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor ATP/CFII.
Challenger 604/605, Gulfstream IV, MU2B

Nomophobia. This is the term given to those afflicted with extreme anxiety or fear associated with being without a smartphone or “disconnected” from the online world. Although it sounds fictitious, nomophobia is an actual disorder largely driven by an entire generation raised on smartphones and reinforced by an economy of hyper-convenience.

In this day and age, someone can have a gourmet meal delivered in minutes, a bundle of retail goods dropped off in hours, or have a romantic date scheduled for the evening just by spending a couple of seconds clicking and swiping on a portable electronic device (PED).

Surveys show that some would rather amputate a toe than be without a smartphone for 24 hrs. The constant-connectivity mindset has become embedded in nearly every device, from light bulbs to aircraft.

One reason for smartphone dependence is that PEDs or smart devices have replaced some human cognitive functions, and done so almost without our noticing. Having a refrigerator determine that a gallon of milk is running low – and subsequently placing an order for a new one – is less concerning than the effects smart devices are having on knowledge dilution.

Copilot syndrome

Transactive memory is a field of study first proposed by psychologist Daniel Wagner in 1985 that deals with how groups encode, store, and retrieve information. Experimental evidence shows that, when humans are divided into groups and asked to solve problems collectively or work through difficult scenarios, a “groupthink” solution is often the result.

In many cases, individual members of a group who lack knowledge or are uncertain about the veracity of their knowledge, will defer to the opinions of others in the group, even if such answers are wrong.

In a 2-person cockpit, transactive memory sometimes manifests in the form of “copilot syndrome” – that is, when a subordinate FO allows his knowledge to become weak or deteriorate because he believes the captain has enough knowledge to handle any situation.

Basically, the copilot is along for the ride, as he believes the captain will look out for him. According to a 2015 article in Scientific American, “research on transactive memory finds that, when we have reliable external sources of information about particular topics at our disposal, this reduces our motivation and ability to acquire and retain knowledge about those topics.”

Asking Siri or using Google to derive information is a widespread example of transactive memory. The ability of the smart phone to provide answers (eg, “Siri, what’s the surface visibility requirement for surface-based class E airspace?”) means there’s no need to memorize data, facts, techniques, or procedures.

Some might say PEDs are “dumbing down” the population at large. The old admonition from a middle school teacher in the 1980s and earlier that “You’d better learn math because you’re not always going to have a calculator with you” was untrue.

You do always have a calculator with you if you carry a cellphone. Transactive memory is a large part of nomophobia, and many people believe instant access to online resources is necessary to function in everyday life. Another example of transactive memory is the dependence on mapping applications.

Most people today can’t use a basic map or find their way to an unfamiliar location were it not for Google Maps or a similar application. An aircraft that lacks “suitable connectivity” can be torturous for a nomophobic. Further, operators without Wi-Fi connectivity are at a distinct disadvantage from the standpoint of productivity and entertainment.

This is especially noticeable in the charter market, where clients tend to avoid renting aircraft without connectivity capability.

Gogo promises flexibility. Rather in the manner of wireless carriers providing redundancy across their networks, Gogo will continue to use its 3G and 4G networks throughout the continental US and Canada to ensure optimal coverage.

Enter 5G

Passenger comfort and productivity have always been a key consideration for any flight department, and one would be hard pressed to find a Fortune 500 operation without an aircraft equipped with Internet capability. However, it seems simply having Internet access is no longer enough, as clients and consumers want the fastest speed available.

For now, that’s 5G. The 5G rollout is being heavily marketed by the terrestrial-based Internet service providers as they vie for customers. Unfortunately, however, there’s a big difference between delivering a 5G signal to an aircraft versus a hand-held PED, and, as a result, most of the advantages of earthly 5G won’t carry over to airborne installations.

Knowing what 5G is – and what it isn’t – can help flight departments decide whether it’s worth the additional investment to modify a single aircraft or an entire fleet to add 5G service connectivity. The “G” stands for generation, and represents a technological improvement from generations 1–4.

Generations 1 and 2 were confined to phone calls and text messaging, whereas 3 and 4 were true mobile broadband delivery mechanisms. In terms of speed, 3G requires a minimum transfer rate of 200 kbps (kilobits per second), which is very slow when compared to a 4G specification of 100 mbps (megabits per second) for high-mobility users (cars and trains), and 1 gbps (gigabit per second) for pedestrians.

The different broadband speed requirements for moving and stationary devices within the 4G network is a reminder that the physics of fast-moving objects, such as aircraft, affects the overall speed of the system. The “LTE” (Long Term Evolution) designation after 4G has an interesting and dubious history.

The governing body for broadband standards is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It turns out that, when the 4G specification was published, manufacturers couldn’t really meet it. If 4G speeds couldn’t be met, a provider could use LTE, which meant that the broadband speed was faster than 3G but not as fast as the published 4G specifications.

The designation 4G caught on, and the average consumer never really questioned whether they were getting the promised speeds. Aside from increased delivery speeds near 20 gbps download and 10 gbps upload, 5G is unique from previous generations in that it operates on low, mid, and high frequency bands.

Because the low frequency band is also used by LTE, it’s become saturated, and therefore the most promise for 5G lies with the mid and high frequency spectrum. Each commercial carrier has staked its claim, so to speak, with a preferential band. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all plan on using the high spectrum, and Sprint plans on using a large portion of the mid band spectrum.

Although the mid and high frequency 5G bands have the capability to push an enormous amount of data, there’s a flaw – neither penetrates buildings very well. So, the only solution to the penetration problem is to drastically increase the number of 5G antennas.

From an aesthetics perspective, 5G antennas don’t resemble the massive cellular towers in existence today. Small rooftop antennas (albeit in large numbers) work for 5G.

Privacy concerns

Security pundits say this super saturation of antennas brings an unintended side effect – individual smartphones can be geolocated down to a couple of meters on a 5G band. Current technology allows a cellphone to be traced to specific towers, which in turn can be triangulated to a small geographic region, but a 5G-capable phone with the GPS disabled can be traced to a specific room in a specific building.

The ability to pinpoint the exact geographical location of a phone on a 5G network is likely only applicable to flight departments that are highly security conscious and transport high-profile individuals to unsavory parts of the world.

It’s important to note that operators that use a strictly satellite-based system for connectivity are not affected by 5G as it’s an air-to-ground (ATG) technology only. Aircraft that use a combination of Satcom and ATG could see a 5G benefit, but only when over US domestic airspace, as that’s the only place where the infrastructure operates.

Of course, the ability to switch seamlessly between satellite and ground-based systems (eg, transitioning from oceanic to domestic) is a function of service providers in combination with a smart router. Honeywell and Satcom Direct both have excellent product lines in these areas.

To prevent signal attenuation, 5G requires a large number of antennas within a small geographic area. An advantage of antenna saturation is the ability to locate precisely objects like drones, which can be equipped cheaply with 5G transmitters.

Main ATG 5G providers

The 2 primary players in the 5G ATG space are Gogo and SmartSky. Gogo is deeply entrenched in both the commercial and private air transport segments of the industry, and is currently pursing 5G capability. SmartSky, on the other hand, estimates 5G operations in 2021.

In an interview to Avionics International, SmartSky President Ryan Stone points out that 5G connectivity in the air is not quite as exciting as on the ground. According to Stone, using a 5G network to download a movie in under a second, which is applicable using millimeter-wave frequencies across ultra-short ranges, is ideal for a fixed urban environment, but it would be impractical to use on a moving airplane.

There are 2 key questions: How fast is fast enough? And what is superfluous when it comes to 5G in the air? In a practical sense, a nomophobic or habitual smartphone user won’t notice much of a difference between 4G and 5G on airborne networks.

Given the tendency toward transactive memory as a function of smartphone use, constant connectivity in the form of a satellite/ATG combo package would seem preferable to a meager increase in speed.

5G for pax convenience

The most practical use of 5G is in airport infrastructure. The most visible use comes in the form of passenger amenities and convenience.

LAX (Los Angeles CA), LGA (La Guardia, New York NY), and DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth, TX) have installed smart restrooms in the terminals. At first glance, it looks as though the airport authorities have modeled the restrooms after smart parking garages – as with parking spots, if a restroom stall is unoccupied, a green light illuminates directly above it, and red means there’s someone in there.

However, 5G allows more information than just whether the latch is selected to open or closed. So much so that an entire business has developed based on collecting data from airport restrooms. Modus Systems developed the Tooshlight product line, and claims “Smart restrooms are plugged-in, sensor-enabled facilities that are aware of their own conditions and can communicate that data to the network.”

The company touts that it collects data on stall turnover, traffic tracking and analysis, repair and maintenance, emergency/security, and feedback tablets, and sends it over the 5G network. How long a passenger or pilot sits in a bathroom stall is now a data point.

This practice sounds creepy, but smart restroom proponents justify the practice by pointing out that a person in the stall for an extended period could have had a heart attack or be in duress. To improve situational awareness for those in need of a restroom stall, the occupied or unoccupied status can be sent to a smartphone app.

The whole thing is comical, but serves to illustrate how much data 5G can push and how airports are using it. Other potential benefits 5G has the potential to improve situational awareness both in the air and on the ground. In the air, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles can be identified and located.

Pilot reports of drone sightings on or in the vicinity of an airport continue to increase. Since a 5G transmitter is cheaper to install than GPS, especially when it comes to lower-cost drones typically operated by hobbyists, the vast number of 5G antennas allows a precise location to be transmitted, and that information could be relayed to ATC.

With this information, pilots could be advised of drone incursions in the form of a traffic report. On the ground, 5G could help avoid surface-based incursions. Fuel trucks, snowplows and other airport vehicles could all be cheaply equipped with a 5G transmitter that would provide a constant position report.

Although, technically, these vehicles should be in contact with ATC at tower-controlled airports, many pilots can attest to being surprised by the unexpected presence of a vehicle, especially when transitioning from IMC to VMC.

The enormous amount of marketing being directed at potential 5G consumers may generate unrealistic expectations when it comes to airborne connectivity, but promising improvements to aviation could come with 5G.

Pilots might have to point out that, although downloading a 2-hour movie in 3.6 seconds from the home or office is entirely possible under a terrestrial 5G network, doing the same thing in 6 minutes in a place traveling at 500 mph isn’t all that bad. Perhaps the question might be: “Siri, how fast does a jet fly?”

Shannon Forrest is a current line pilot, CRM facilitator and aviation safety consultant. He has over 10,000 hours and holds a degree in behavioral psychology.