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Airlines foresee summer travel snafus over altimeter shortage

Altimeters, a kind of sensor that measures the height of an aircraft above the ground, are at the center of an enduring battle between airlines, the FAA, and 5G wireless carriers—potentially affecting flight safety. 

After more than a year of discussion, the US Federal Aviation Administration is holding airlines to a July 1 deadline to upgrade their airplane radio altimeters (also referred to as radar altimeters) so they can handle potential interference from 5G wireless technology.  The FAA does not plan to extend the July 1 deadline before new rules take effect prohibiting certain landings in low-visibility conditions without upgraded altimeters.

The problem for airlines seeking to make altimeter upgrades is a familiar one: supply chain issues. “Supply chain issues make it unlikely that all aircraft can be upgraded by the 1 July deadline, threatening operational disruptions during the peak northern summer travel season,” said the International Air Transport Association in a statement dated May 2. IATA represents about 300 airlines with 83% of the global air traffic.

“Airlines did not create this situation,” said Nick Careen, IATA senior vice president of operations, safety and security, also in a statement. “They are victims of poor government planning and coordination. Industry concerns about 5G, expressed for many years in the appropriate forums, were ignored and over-ridden. Half-measure solutions have been foisted upon airlines to implement at their own expense and with little visibility into their long-term viability.”

IATA commented about supply chain concerns while also commending AT&T, UScellular, T-Mobile and Verizon for extending until January 2028 their voluntary mitigation measures for 5G C-band transmission at 188 US airports. The mitigation measures include lowering the power of 5G transmissions, which had been set to expire on July 1.

However, IATA said the underlying 5G -band safety and economic issues “have only been kicked down the road.”  The organization said radio altimeter upgrades will cost more than $638 million across all airline fleets. Some airlines began upgrades in 2022. Also, IATA is concerned a current retrofit will not be resilient eventually against all full power 5G C-band transmissions, meaning airlines could have to retrofit most of their aircraft twice in five years.

A Boeing spokesman told Fierce Electronics: “Boeing continues to work with suppliers, regulators, the airlines and telecom companies to ensure long-term stability and help mitigate operational restrictions where possible in an effort to promote the safe co-existence of aviation and 5G environments for all models of the Boeing fleet.”

An expert in altimeter technology also told Fierce that the potential for safety problems with older altimeters is not great. “Planes are not going to fall from the sky,” said Dennis Roberson, president of Roberson And Associates, a wireless consultancy. “Most of the airplanes that needed to have altimeters changed have been, but not all.” It is mostly much older altimeters in smaller planes used on regional trips, he said. 

“Bottom line, the flying public should not be in danger, but there are some aircraft that the airline industry may not be able to use when severe weather is in the forecast,” Roberson added. What that means is if weather is bad, a plane with an older altimeter should not be used which could result in disrupted schedules and unhappy passengers. “If the weather is bad enough, you don’t want to go there anyway. Altimeters become extremely valuable in bad weather with low visibility when you can’t see the ground. You really have to have it working.” 

Ironically, Roberson said the upgrades to altimeters can be very trivial, using a piece of 25 cent ceramic to block out the 5G signal that could be in conflict with the altimeter’s radar. 

Concerns over 5G interference with altimeters first became known last summer with the potential to disrupt flights.   The activation of 5G C-band operations by the nation’s carriers started in January 2022 which IATA said “threatened enormous disruption to the US air transport system because of the potential risk of interference with aircraft radio altimeters (radalts) that also use C-band spectrum and are critical to aircraft landing and safety systems.”

AT&T and Verizon had initially agreed to power limit 5G C-band transmissions near airports but the FAA still only permitted airlines to operate at affected airports in low visibility conditions by either modifying existing radalts or replacing them with newer models or relying on alternatives with avionics and aircraft manufacturers to set up specific radalt and aircraft combinations with resilience against interference to allow low-visibility landings.

The principle behind a radio altimeter involves monitoring a beam of radio waves transmitted by an aircraft and their time to return when reflected from the ground to calculate altitude above the ground.


Nokia offers up drone-in-a-box

Finnish kit vendor Nokia hopes to encourage commercial drone adoption with a new all-in-one solution.

The two major drone use cases that have emerged in recent years are delivery services and inspection/monitoring. Nokia’s new offering is for the latter, and is pitched at public safety agencies, smart cities, and the construction, energy and defence sectors.

Called Nokia Drone Networks, it comprises drones with dual-gimbal stabilised cameras. They can connect to public or private 5G or LTE networks, promising customers a stable connection at beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Nokia claims these drones can offer up to 50 minutes of flight time and can cover distances of up to 30 kilometres, depending on their configuration.

The solution also comes with a docking station that supports remote drone operations by providing what is essentially a small hangar that recharges the aircraft in between flights and protects it from hazardous environments.

Once deployed, Nokia’s drones can be programmed to carry out autonomous scheduled flights, which could be handy for regular equipment inspections, or providing security companies or first responders with a better view of a large event, for example.

Nokia is also bringing its MX Industrial Edge (MXIE) solution to bear, which means customers can store and process data in real time at an edge cloud. MXIE’s open API framework also means customers can install pre-integrated Nokia – and third-party – apps, unlocking new and exciting drone-related public safety and Industry 4.0 use cases.

“Our mission is to reshape the industrial UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) market, providing enhanced situational awareness to aid search and rescue, surveillance, and other UAV operations in a wide variety of industries,” said Thomas Eder, head of embedded wireless solutions at Nokia, in a statement.

“The unique feature set enabling the integration of Nokia drones with third-party applications will aid the transformation of the drones, allowing them to be used as a flying data collection platform leveraging reliable 4G and 5G edge cloud connectivity,” he added.

Nokia is particularly keen to point out that its drone-in-a-box solution is fully CE-certified, meaning it meets EU safety standards. It has also been designed to comply with the remote operation requirements laid out by both the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) and the US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA).

“This will help us address growing market demands as a turnkey provider with a solution designed and produced in Europe,” said Eder.

Indeed, according to Drone Industry Insights, the overall drone market – which includes recreational as well as commercial drones – is expected to be worth $55.8 billion by the end of the decade, compared to $30.6 billion in 2022. The commercial segment is expected to outperform the broader market, notching up a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.3 percent, compared to 7.8 percent for the drone sector as a whole.

In the UK alone, a report last summer by PwC predicted that by 2030 there will be more than 900,000 drones operating in UK skies, and that the commercial drone market will contribute £45 billion to the economy. The sector is also expected to support – either directly or indirectly – more than 650,000 jobs.

The incentives for the likes of Nokia – and others – to get in on the action are clear.


MTN deploys over 2 500 5G sites across its markets

Mobile network operator MTN has rolled out over 2,500 5G sites across the markets in which it operates.

This was revealed when MTN, which is Africa’s biggest mobile network operator, this week released its integrated report for the year ended 31 December 2022.

“In the period, we rolled out 3 498 3G and 7 993 4G sites, culminating in our 3G and 4G coverage increasing by nine million and 45 million people, respectively,” says Ralph Mupita, MTN Group CEO.

“In 2022, we rolled out 1 570 5G sites, mainly in South Africa and Nigeria, bringing our total number of 5G sites to 2 527,” he adds.

In South Africa, MTN is rolling out 5G after winning spectrum in the auction held by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa. Additional spectrum is expected to be released in the short-term.

After winning 100MHz spectrum for 5G in the auction, MTN became the first operator to launch 5G in Nigeria in 2022.

“We are targeting 10% 5G population coverage by end-2023. The other spectrum winner is yet to launch its network.”

According to Mupita, MTN increased smartphone penetration to 58% of its customer base (up 3.8 percentage points), as it continued its push for greater digital and financial inclusion.

MTN GlobalConnect (MTN GC), which drives MTN’s FibreCo ambitions, continued to scale its fixed connectivity and wholesale mobility services, says Mupita.

“It rolled out 5,157km of new fibre in 2022, bringing our total inventory to more than 105,157km of proprietary fibre and comparing well with our 2025 target of 135,000km.”


Tower firms eye 5G mid-band and small cells to boost 2023

5G is the gift that keeps giving to the top three U.S. tower companies. Although most agree that 2022 was the year of “peak” 5G deployments, executives with American Tower, SBA Communications and Crown Castle told investors during their Q1 earnings calls that they are still seeing continued 5G activity as operators like Verizon build their C-band 5G network and Dish Network rapidly expands its nationwide greenfield 5G network. Plus, all operators are expected to densify their 5G network with small cells.

Jay Brown, CEO of Crown Castle, told investors during the company’s Q1 earnings call last month that Crown expects its customers’ network and investment in 5G to exceed what they spent on 4G. He added that Crown expects at least 5% organic tower revenue growth and also is expecting an acceleration of its small cell business with the addition of 10,000 nodes this year.

“I think in terms of the number of small cells that we’ve seen thus far in 5G commitments from the carrier customers, as well as the conversations that we’re having about what is to come in the future suggests that the opportunity is significantly more than what we saw during the 4G era,” Brown said.  

Likewise American Tower CEO Tom Bartlett said that his company is seeing customers make significant investments in 5G but have so far mainly focused on the broader coverage requirements. “We believe our customers’ networks will need to provide at least two times the network capacity they have today in three to four years or roughly three times today’s capacity as we approach the end of the decade,” Bartlett said.

Plus, the tower players are looking to the second half of 2023 for more movement from AT&T and Verizon as the remaining C-band spectrum licenses that the two companies purchased during the 2021 auction are expected to be cleared and available for their use. SBA Communications CEO Jeff Stoops said during the company’s 1Q earnings call earlier this week that less than 50% of tower sites have been upgraded with C-band radios so far, leaving more room for growth.

Stoops also said that his company is expecting to see more activity now that the FCC is approving requests from vendors so they can manufacture single radios that support by 3.45 GHz and 3.7 GHz/C-band spectrum. Ericsson received a conditional approval from the FCC in March to make its single radio that supports both 3.45 GHz and 3.7 GHz/C-band.

Plus, Samsung recently asked the FCC for a waiver so it can manufacture and sell a 3.7 GHz 5G base station that also supports CBRS for customers who are deploying both C-band and CBRS spectrum.

“Right now, the deployment is a separate radio and antenna for c-band and 3.45 MHz,” Stoops told investors. “It’ll be a more efficient form factor when they are combined,” he added, noting that when combined the radios will require just one truck roll making it faster and more affordable for operators. “We think it’s going to be a positive development when that equipment is available.”

Dish remains diligent in deployments
Not surprisingly, investment analysts peppered tower executives with questions regarding Dish’s network build out to see if the company has altered any of its plans. Crown’s Brown said that Dish is consistently building its network and that Crown is helping them get sites on air as quickly as possible.

SBA Communications’ CFO Brendan Cavanagh said that Dish is still signing up new business, but not at the same pace they were a year ago. However, SBA added that this is not unusual as the company is currently deploying equipment on towers that they already signed up for last year.

And American Tower’s Bartlett said that Dish remains very active in the market. “They have always been a good partner,” he added.

Private networks and edge
American Tower, which acquired data center firm CoreSite in late 2021, as part of its edge computing initiative, said that the company continues to have discussions with service providers as well as hyperscalers and cloud players about its edge computing proposition. However, Bartlett said that it’s still early days for edge computing.

Another new area that is also generating buzz is private networks. Barlett said that while American Tower isn’t seeing a “surge in deployments” of private networks, the company’s sales teams are having discussions with carriers and enterprises that are interested in deploying private 5G networks.


Dell’Oro: Four mobile network operators launch 5G standalone in Q1 2023

It’s springtime for standalone — 5G standalone that is!

We checked in with Dell’Oro Group for its latest update on 5G standalone (SA) deployments.

“Currently we count 43 live 5G SA networks for eMMB [enhanced mobile broadband],” Dell’Oro Group research director Dave Bolan told Silverlinings over email. “For 2023, four [mobile network operators] have launched 5G SA networks,” he added.

It should be noted that Dell’Oro doesn’t factor in fixed wireless access (FWA) or private 5G networks in its SA totals.

“We would not count Telefónica Spain yet,” Bolan told us. “They have not launched 5G SA to consumers yet. They had an excellent exhibit at MWC with 26 GHz coverage, demonstrating their network is ready to go to 5G SA,” he said.

5G SA is one of the building blocks of cloud native 5G. Network updates that bring lower latency and network slicing are only really enabled by the pure 5G SA architecture. In fact, according to research released earlier this year, Deloitte Global said it expects the number of mobile network operators investing in 5G SA networks via trials, planned deployments or rollouts to grow from more than 100 operators in 2022 to at least 200 by the end of this year.

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