Even though it is human nature to resist what is unknown, we never stop seeking the next big thing. What does 5G mean for aviation, and will it play a big part in aviation tomorrow?
We are excited to present to you the very first episode of FLYHT’s JumpSeat podcast, with Willie Cecil and Peter Rysavy where they will unravel 5G technology and discuss what this game-changer has already brought for aviation and its potential for the near future.
In this episode, you can learn about the extensively customizable frequency of 5G cellular network to provide versatile applications to fit specific operational needs; Its high bandwidth and download speeds which are increasingly important as airplanes today generate immense amounts of data every minute, which can be used in predictive and prescriptive analytics to save operational and maintenance costs; And the potential to establish private networks to preserve your data and commit to a safeguarded communications systems.
Thanks so much for joining us this week. Want to hear more innovative topics on aviation? Tune in to our next episode of FLYHT’s JumpSeat!
Hop on the JumpSeat podcast with FLYHT. As we talk to aviation leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators, as they make their airline operations safer, more profitable, and friendlier for passengers and the environment alike. Come along for the ride, as we discuss how game-changing technology such as Big Data, AI, and 5G impact how airlines deal with their everchanging and challenging business.
Hi there, I’m Willie Cecil director for Aircraft Data and Edge solutions at FLYHT Aerospace. Welcome to this podcast on discovering the value 5G brings to aviation. At FLYHT, we have launched a new avionic system, the AFRIS Edge. That’s a 5G Edge computing platform with an Iridium Certus Satcom capability. With all the controversy, we decided — you know, the controversy with 5G and aviation, we decided there may be some interest to learn about the big picture with 5G, beyond what’s going on in the last couple of months. I’m joined today by someone named Informant Tech’s top 100 most influential people charting the course for 5G technology, president of Rysavy Research, Mr. Peter Rysavy. Good morning, Peter! How are you doing today?
Good morning, Willie! I’m excited to be here today to discuss how 5G is going to play an extremely important role for aviation. 5G is going to be a friend of aviation, much more so than the enemy it is portrayed today.
Yeah, yeah, I hear you there. We’ve — one thing we’ve worked before in aviation space, I’m so glad that you’re able to join us today, and something I noticed on your LinkedIn profile in your early career, you were the Chief Technical Officer of a company that created the LapLink solution, that transferred data from one laptop to another — when we called them laptop before they were called something different — that was such a cool product. I used it myself back then in the nineties. Can you share a little bit about your yourself and how you got into the wireless industry from those days? It’s a while ago.
Yes, absolutely. Well, the company called Traveling Software at the time, and called LapLink today, specialized in connectivity solutions for mobile platforms and our connectivity initially was over serial cables, and we pioneered the use of printer cables for extremely fast data transfers between computers, but at the time wireless technology was just being introduced. We had first generation analog cellular, early pre-standard wireless local area networking technologies. As CTO, I was tasked with looking at how our products might operate over wireless connections, so we actually took our LapLink solution and were able to run it over modems connected to analog cellular telephones and do data transfers over analog cellular. We’re one of the first users of wireless data at the time. I also managed the development of a wireless solution, a local area solution that replaced a serial cable just for within a building.
Those experiences really gave me an idea of just how powerful the technology was. So, after leaving that company, I decided to become a consultant specializing in wireless technology, and little did I realize just how huge the industry would become. One thing I’d like to mention is that, back in those days, one of the earliest digital cellular technologies for data was something called cellular digital packet data, CDPD. And CDPD, and this is in the early 1990s, was priced at 10 cents per kilobyte. And today, wireless data is about 10,000 times less expensive. Also the speed of CDPD at that point was 10 kilobits per second. And if you compare that with 5G operating in mid-band, it’s about a hundred megabits per second or higher, 5G today is 10,000 times faster. So, it just shows how far the technology has come.
Wow! Yeah, that’s amazing. It’s interesting how, for what the concept of state of the art means, as the years go on, it’s been fun. My first exposure was, or my first use of cellular was with 2G, GPRS took over from circuit switch data. And for me, it’s kind of mind boggling the changes from then until now, but some of the use cases still the same. What I’d like to explore, I think I’d like to touch on the controversy that’s happened with 5G and aviation the last couple of years, and especially the last couple of months — but maybe we can save that for later because that’s not our focus here. If you don’t mind, I’d like to explore 5G in general (for now). So yeah, if you could give us something, some background of 5G, that would be great.
Sure. Well, 5G really builds on what was a 4G foundation. It was in 4G LTE that a radio technology called OFDMA, Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access, was introduced for cellular and has proven extremely effective. In fact, 4G has been an incredible success story based on OFDMA and then what 5G does is that it takes that approach, but makes the radio extremely scalable and extremely flexible. What I mean by that is that 5G can operate in very narrow bandwidths to extremely high bandwidths. It can use extremely wide channels and it’s flexible in that it can use frequencies that range from existing cellular all the way down to 600 MHz now to millimeter wave close to 40, well at 40 GHz and with successive versions of 5G, those frequencies will go even higher. In contrast, LTE never ran above mid-band at about 3.5 GHz.
The result of that is that 5G can access a lot more spectrum and it’s in those higher frequency bands, the mid-band that we will be discussing, 3 to 4 GHz range and then millimeter wave, 10 GHz or 30 GHz and higher, there’s so much more spectrum that allows 5G to achieve extremely high speeds. And because of that, 5G is now becoming a true alternative to other wireline types of broadband networks, such as cable and fiber in some situations. Also, 5G was designed to handle a much wider range of use cases, so it can operate at extremely high reliability levels and it can also operate at very low latency values. What that means is that 5G can be used now for a lot of control types of applications, whether you’re controlling drones in real-time or robots or sending critical information to cars from highway sensors — and then coupled with all that is an architecture that is heavily virtualized — what that means is that a lot of functions that used to operate on dedicated pieces of hardware now run a software on commodity hardware platforms, and that allows the networks to very easily scale up to adopt new features and to address again, a wide range of use cases. So, that’s the high-level view.
Sure, it’s interesting that with the recent controversy about 5G and aviation, radiometers and such, that it could be confusing for the average Joe to say, well, wait a minute, haven’t we had 5G for a couple of years already? Why is it such a problem right now? And I know some people know the answer to that question, but the thing is there, within 5G, you’re describing there’s three band groups — there’s the kind of low-band, mid-band where C-band is, and high-band. Can you just tell a little bit more about those three bands and what’s happened just in the last couple of months and what that means?
Sure. I already mentioned how 5G can operate in the wide range of frequencies and different frequencies have different characteristics. At low frequencies, the signal travels much further, has much better in-building penetration. So, we refer to that as the coverage layer and, in the real world, those are the frequencies sub-1 GHz — so those frequencies are 600-700 MHz — and a lot of initial 5G deployments were at these lower frequencies. At those frequencies, 5G doesn’t really operate that much differently from 4G, so when 5G first came out, people didn’t necessarily see a huge increase in speeds. On the other side, or other end, you’ve got the millimeter wave, technically at 30 GHz and higher, and those frequencies where you have much higher bandwidth, those signals don’t travel very far at all and are really limited to maybe a couple of hundred yards or under ideal line of sight conditions, maybe half a mile propagation, but in a lot of cases much less if you have any obstructions to the signal. But we have extremely high amounts of spectrum for millimeter waves, therefore millimeter wave can provide throughput speeds above a gigabit per second.
So, that’s a great frequency for capacity, but not necessarily for coverage. In between (high and low band), there are the frequencies referred to as mid-band and that’s really 2 to 4 GHz. And T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz spectrum is mid-band. And also now with C-band which for cellular in the US runs from 3.7 to 3.98 GHz. Those frequencies have a really attractive combination of both coverage and capacity. They achieve high capacity because there’s a lot of spectrum there compared to the lower frequencies, but the frequencies are low enough to still provide very good coverage. So, it’s really those bands (mid-bands) where the potential of 5G is going to show itself. And you can see that, in the speed test that people are performing on these networks where users frequently obtain multi-hundred megabit per second throughputs and are able to obtain that over wide coverage areas. And, so for that reason, those mid-band frequencies are really absolutely critical to the success of 5G.
Maybe I could ask you about this right now, but that particular band that’s used in the US, 3.7 to 3.98(GHz), I know that I think it’s just 3.7 to 3.8 (GHz) that’s actually just been turned on, not all the way up to 3.98 (GHz), that’s maybe going to come in a year or two. And you know, the radio altimeter band is, I believe, in the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz range and the controversy is about the closeness to that band with some of the 5G signal. And I notice in Japan, for example, I think it’s the one I’ve seen that’s, (from what) I understand, is the closest I’ve seen anyway, that they’re operating up to 4.1 GHz with 5G C-band. Can you comment about a world where, I guess the closer you are to 4.2 or 4.4 (GHz), then the more likelihood there might be an issue? So, 4.1 (GHz) is the nearest I’ve seen. Can you comment on other countries that might be a similar closeness to the radio altimeter frequencies as the US or Japan are?
Well, in fact, cellular frequencies in C-band have been used all the way back to the 2007, 2008 timeframe when YMax was using those frequencies. But now with 5G there are approximately 40 countries globally using those frequencies for 5G close to those altimeter bands, and there haven’t been issues at all with using those frequencies. So, I think the current issue today is ultimately going to be resolved and looks like it’s being resolved quite quickly.
Sure. So, in parallel, you know, I mentioned cellular before was considered 20 years ago as inappropriate. And I was involved in — as you know, how we met — I was involved in promoting that and growing the use of cellular for connectivity at the airport to the aircraft. And that became, especially over the last decade, became very, very popular and possibly as much as maybe 70% or more of all aircraft are utilizing cellular on the ground. But it’s not focused on, for example, air traffic control communication, it’s focused for, operational use cases and especially for data harvesting.
Willie, looking forward. How do you see 5G being applied to different kinds of aircraft applications? What is the future of 5G in the aviation industry?
So, in the aviation industry, they’re always fighting fuel prices and very tight margins, right? And often the airlines are losing money as often as they’re making money. So, there’s pressure to improve efficiency, and that’s the things like fuel and optimization of the operation. But also dealing with disruptions, trying to get ahead or predict disruption, especially disruptions caused by technical delays. Technical delays cause something called AOG, or Aircraft On the Ground situation, and that means that the aircraft, the flight could be canceled or delayed, and basically it’s a crisis management to get the problem, the technical problem fixed. Now with modern AI or analytics capabilities, it’s becoming more and more possible (to predict), and there’s platforms out there that the aircraft OEMs and other parties have — and my company FLYHT has some activity in this space, too — that they can get ahead of some of these things and predict, or a combination of being more proactive and being predictive and prescriptive, that you might identify days, weeks, even months ahead that a problem might happen on the predictive maintenance site.
But all these kind of things, whether it’s optimizing operation or predictive maintenance, one of the things they need these analytics need is a lot more — first of all, they need good connectivity to the crew in the aircraft, but more importantly what’s needed is aircraft data, you know, sensor data. The airplane is an asset containing dozens or hundreds of other assets, like the engines, for example, and there’s immense amounts of data in each one of those assets within the asset that is the airplane. And if you want to harvest — some different companies like Airbus has spent a lot of time assessing how to (harvest) and coming up with strategies to harvest that data. And with our AFIRS Edge product, that’s one of our use cases is to really expand the data harvesting beyond what’s been done in the past.
And my understanding is that in every flight, a huge amount of data is collected about what happens during that flight. Just out of curiosity, what are some of the items that are being measured or collected?
So, if we consider the engines, there’s a new generation of engines out there that come with the 737 Max and the A320neo. And there’s been an explosion on the number of sensors that are gathering temperatures and pressures and all kinds of different sensor data. And the expansion is so much so that there’s — I think the 787 was a new engine too — If we look at that one, I think there was one article that someone claimed there was think 840 terabytes on a, or maybe 840 gigabytes, I can’t remember exactly, but it’s large numbers on a 12-hour flight. So there’s a large amount of data being generated every flight. But in contrast, if we consider what’s being collected today over 2G or 3G systems, which is the majority of almost all the vast majority of aircraft, the 70% that I mentioned have, they’re harvesting maybe, 5 or 10 megabytes per flight hour today.
And that’s the (issue), they’re integrated into one of the data concentrators on the aircraft and what drove that deployment by the way, it’s kind of an interesting story, it’s actually flight safety. So, going back around about the same time period 20 years ago, there was an IKO international mandate, or requirement or directive for airlines to collect what’s virtually equivalent to the Flight Data Recorder data that you would harvest it after an accident, but to collect that data routinely. And then optionally, the airlines may de-identify it, so the pilots are happy about it. And then just track it and look for opportunities for identifying risks and training opportunities and improving the safety within aviation.
So that’s kind of like being an unsung hero that what’s been going on in the last 20 years, we don’t hear about things that may have happened that were saved, because of analytics has been going on focused on safety. And as I mentioned, the next step is to move into that kind of data set — what I would I think is called time series data — that’s hundreds or literally thousands of data parameters can be captured to 8 or 16 times per second throughout the flight, and then harvested afterwards. So I think what I see is a huge growth in that going forward, and then ultimately I guess that 10 years from now, I would hope that technical delays will be extremely rare. Just generally, delays and disruptions will be a small piece of — much smaller than it is now.
So the bottom line is that with all that intelligence that both safety and reliability are improved and that 5G will play an important role in the connectivity between planes and other systems.
So I’d like to ask you a little bit about private networks. It hasn’t happened hugely, I think, with 3G or 4G. Do you think with 5G, that could potentially be a valuable thing or something that could materialize?
It’s already beginning to materialize! Private networks are going to be a huge way for enterprises to use cellular. Because is with a private network, an enterprise, whether it’s an airport or factory or whatever, has much greater control over how that network is used, who has access to it, what devices, what systems (have access) and so forth. And what makes 5G a really good candidate for private networks is its virtualization, its move to a cloud-based infrastructure. What that means is that the enterprise, such as an airport, might be responsible for where physically the antennas might be, but everything else can be hosted in the cloud. And the cloud portion could be by a cellular operator, it could be by an infrastructure vendor, Ericsson and NOKIA, companies that provide cellular infrastructure. And increasingly, you’re seeing the cloud players, such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft and Google, becoming involved in these deployments. Consequently, the options for enterprises to be able to operate and install a private network, those options are just coming ever more flexible. There’s just a lot more ways of, I think, pushing that private network than was previously possible.
Right, yeah. I read about it recently in France, and in Charles de Gaulle, and I think Air France wants to — they’ve experienced what cellular bottlenecks might happen or have happened with 2G and 3G before, I think. And they’ve actually, the airport authority there, has I think launched a private network. So, that’s was interesting to read about. I think it’s 4G LTE right now, but it’s planned to transition to 5G. And the idea, I guess it is going to be that they’ve got guaranteed performance or availability aspect for operational use of the airport. So, that was kind of interesting to read about, but the provider that’s providing the SIMs, it was interesting to learn about, one of the challenges with private networks is if you are going to have hardware that connects to both the private network and then other times to the consumer cellular network, how the SIMs might handle that. And I don’t know if you’ve seen things like that, but I heard that there are — there is a SIM now that can actually, a single SIM, that can support both using both a consumer network and a private network,
Right. The standards are providing greater flexibility in SIM support, SIM being the Subscriber Identity Module, so whether that’s multiple SIMs or something called eSIM, electronic SIM, the ability for a device to be able to connect to different operators, and that could be a combination of public and private, but those options are just going to improve.
One thing that I have experienced in the industry is there’s some perception or discussion that satellite technology is also getting faster and cheaper, too. And you know, it’s kind of like, I think of it as this like “one day I’ll be as old as you”. Well, it’s not true. Everything keeps — we all keep moving at the same rate. So it’s a kind of analogy I thought of on that topic. But the concern, or maybe not a concern, but the question that was raised is, it possible that maybe that some applications like transfer of data from an aircraft on the ground, all of the transfer, whether it’s on in the air, on the ground might be done via satellite, because the cost and capacity is getting better there, too. I don’t know if you’ve got some thoughts on that?
Sure. Satellite technology is certainly improving. The Starlink capabilities, for example, are really remarkable in providing extremely high, tens of megabytes per second, often maybe even a hundred megabytes per second throughput rates that compare to previous generations of cellular are quite astounding. But you have to keep in mind that a satellite, even if there are at the hundreds and ultimately thousands of these satellites in the sky, the coverage area of any one satellite is still quite large, it might be an entire city. And in contrast, a cellular network, you might have in a dense area, such as an airport, you might have a base station, every hundred yards or every couple of hundred yards, or if it’s millimeter wave, might even be denser than that. And capacity is directly proportional to the number of base stations you have. So, if you have hundreds of base stations in a dense metro area, you’re ultimately going to have hundreds of times more capacity, then say a satellite in the sky, even if it’s low earth orbiting. Consequently, I see satellites playing a very important role, but it’s still going to be niche-oriented. It’s still going to be providing coverage in areas where you don’t have terrestrial networks. And then the airport, if you’re transferring large amount to data for multiple aircrafts at the same time, that would be an extremely challenging application for satellite.
Yeah, yeah, I hear you and my view is that it’s going to remain to be very complimentary that you do need higher bit rates and better connectivity in flight, as well as on the ground. The ACARS over L-band and the ACARS over VHF and the Telex systems in the few kilobytes per second range. So there’s scope for that to move to a higher bandwidth, more effective link.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s a lot of effort in 5G to standardize the satellite link as well with 5G specifications. So, in the future, this is more a consumer interest, but your 5G phone in the future, will be able to connect to a satellite if you are not in coverage of a terrestrial network. So, I do see satellites as playing a very important role, it’s just important to understand where they make the most sense and where they maybe just can’t match a terrestrial network.
Yeah, yeah. In the industrial world, or in aviation, the data transmission costs are a contributor to operational cost for the business, or for an airline. And just to give you an idea of cost, I think in the airborne systems that I mentioned, whether it’s ACARS, whether that’s VHF or SATCOM, they can be in the — you used kilobyte before, but I try to think mostly megabyte these days to keep things in context — but it’s in the order of maybe around a hundred dollars per megabyte up to sometimes even more than a thousand dollars per megabyte of transfer costs for these kind of systems. Now with new systems, like the IP Satcom data links, things like Iridium Certus, that cost is coming down huge. It’s a big reduction happening. And cellular, we think now actually we actually talk about the cost of cellular per gigabyte now, not per megabyte anymore. I remember when GPRS came, it was, I think in the UK, it was a pound, I think a pound per megabyte is what they were hoping to get. And, that didn’t, I think last very long — it needed to be cheaper than that. So, can you say where you see cellular data costs going, and maybe a little bit about roaming, because there’s been some changes in roaming costs. It’s also come down a lot over the years.
Right. Each new generation of cellular is more efficient and so you get huge saving in cost per gigabyte or megabyte with each new generation. And that is achieved in multiple ways. But you know, think about it, if you’re doing a gigahertz-wide radio channel versus a 10 MHz wide radio channel, that’s a hundred to one difference in the amount of capacity. And yet, from an operator perspective, the antenna and all the fiber costs and all the fixed costs are not that much different. So you get this huge savings just by being able to exploit more spectrum. And then on top of that, with virtualization cloud developments, the cost of running the network also is going down. So, for multiple reasons, I think you’re going to see dramatic reductions in cost per gigabyte as the technology matures. As far as roaming costs, I think a lot of the roaming costs in the past were just artificially high — operators just saw that as an easy way of charging a high amount for data.
And as there is greater demand for more reasonable roaming and costs, I expect those to go down. I don’t have exact data on that.
Okay, good, good. Yeah, I’ve seen more and more kind of flat rate roaming things like, for example, I think AT&T is like a $10 per day for unlimited (data) when you’re international. I think T-Mobile includes maybe previous generation unlimited when you go — actually at no extra charge I think for roaming. So it’s kind of been quite aggressive, the changes within roaming which I think is quite exciting. Which for aviation that’s actually an important thing, if we start to rely on cellular connectivity to the flight deck, for example, most pilots carry iPads now or devices that are maybe Wi-Fi enabled. If, for them, they have a dependable connection at every airport all around the world, then the kind of roaming situation is critical for that to happen.
You know, I think maybe we could get back to the controversy for a little bit, just kind of maybe try and put that to bed. So, it seems that anybody listening in, or maybe some in the airline industry might consider that 5G is bad news for aviation. It would be hard to not feel that or get that message from what’s been happening in the media. So I think that the situation, one positive thing, I would like probably talk about something positive with regards to it, right. Planes falling at the sky seems unlikely at this stage with the controls the FAA has in place and with everything else going on. Something that’s quite positive, I think over the last couple of years, as it’s been known that this 5G C-band turn on was coming and there was billions of dollars, right? I think $80 billion that the cellular industry paid to get the spectrum. And it was sold to them by the government drive by the FCC. And there was testing done. But the positive thing is, one thing that everyone on the aviation side and on the wireless side had an agreement, was that more testing with regard to the radio altimeters themselves needed to be done. I think the aviation body, the RTCA said that, I think the FAA said that. The FCC said that it needed to be looked at, but for whatever reason, it didn’t happen is what I gather. And it’s interesting just on the FAA’s website in the last week or two that, apparently the testing I don’t think had begun until very recently in the last few weeks.
And they’ve already established that 90%, or approximately 90% of aircraft are — their radiometers — are not affected. And the other 10%, they haven’t said how many are affected, but they do say that they expect there will be some, I don’t know if that’s 10 aircraft or a hundred aircraft or what number it’ll be, but there might be a few aircrafts affected. It might be more than that, but… so, and I understand the regulators or, not the regulators, the Verizons and the AT&Ts have agreed to delay six months at the major airports, the rollout of turning on this frequency. And maybe that can be shortened if it turns out that there’s very few aircraft affected. And it takes time to upgrade aircraft, and that’s why it’s a big question how many aircraft are affected, but I think we’re going to know fairly soon what the bottom line is. So, I don’t know if you’ve maybe got thoughts to add to that?
Well, I would just mention that there is this compromise that the operators, specifically AT&T and Verizon are turning on C-band, and that band is absolutely critical for providing the 5G connectivity that users are expecting and will be demanding with a new generation of applications that companies like Apple and Google are working on. Fortunately, they’ve been able to turn these networks on except at airports or a certain number of airports and not doing it within, I believe like two miles of these airports. That still provides them a very good coverage footprint for C-band. Unfortunately, the airports are one place that would really benefit from C-band. So, if you’ve got a lot of people at gates and so forth who, maybe don’t want to use Wi-Fi, want to use cellular connectivity for whatever reason, they’re not going to get the benefits of that. So there is an urgency to resolve this problem as quickly as possible — and I do believe good progress is being made. I think in an ideal world, this controversy would never have occurred and that these issues would’ve been resolved well in advance of launching this C-band capability, but we are where we are, and at this point, at least we’re making fairly reasonable progress towards resolving the issue.
Yeah, I feel that it’ll soon be history and those people that live and work around the airports, you know, because there’s some airports right in the city, right, and in some cities and close to cities, they’ll have the benefit of seeing 5G plus or 5G ultra-wide band on their phones before long. I’d like to say, thank you, Peter, this has been a great catch up with you, and I think that 5G is going to have incredible value for aviation. It’s not the curse that you would see in the press, I think it’s absolutely a real blessing and it’s going to have immense value for airline operations.
Thanks, Willie, I enjoyed the discussion.
And I agree with you, I think 5G is going to play a very important role for the aviation industry, so it was fun to explore that topic with you.
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