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Airlines, wireless companies announce deal on 5G deployment

Two-week delay gives FAA more time to explore safety measures

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Airlines and the telecommunications industry appeared to reach a detente late Monday in what had become an increasingly harsh disagreement over the scheduled Wednesday deployment of 5G technology using bandwidth that airlines said threatened the safety of air travel.

Both Verizon and AT&T, which bought a section of bandwidth last February for more than $80 billion, agreed to a two-week delay before using the frequencies, giving the Federal Aviation Administration time to explore measures to ensure it wouldn’t interfere with radar altimeters, which airplane and helicopter pilots use to help navigate during low-visibility situations.

The wireless companies on Monday agreed to measures comparable to those used in Europe to avoid interference.

“We’ve agreed to a two-week delay which promises the certainty of bringing this nation our game-changing 5G network in January,” Verizon announced. AT&T said it “voluntarily agreed to one additional two-week delay of our deployment of C-Band 5G services.” AT&T also said it is committed to a six-month protection zone around key U.S. airports to mitigate any interference.

The dispute drew increased attention leading up to the agreement, with airline pilot unions, flight attendant unions and even House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., weighing in. DeFazio wrote a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel urging her to delay implementation.

The FAA issued a statement thanking the companies “for agreeing to a voluntary delay and for their proposed mitigations.”

“We look forward to using the additional time and space to reduce flight disruptions associated with this 5G deployment,” the agency statement read.

The agreement, first tentatively announced during a background briefing with airline officials, comes as airlines had become increasingly concerned about Wednesday’s planned 5G deployment, which wireless phone companies hope to use to provide new services including higher-speed data connections. The FAA last month issued two directives warning of increased delays and cancellations if pilots could not rely on radar altimeters.

Airlines, predicting significant disruptions because of the deployment on top of thousands of flights already canceled because of COVID-19-related staffing shortages and weather, had planned as of late Monday to file an emergency petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals to delay the deployment of the technology.

That came after Federal Aviation Administrator Steve Dickson and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg wrote Verizon and AT&T on Dec. 31 asking them to hold off for no more than two weeks while the FAA identified buffer zones around key airports.

The companies initially balked, but late Monday announced they had agreed to a deal to delay deployment until Jan. 19, spurring airlines to say they would not file the appeal.

“Our goal is to avoid disruptions,” said an airline official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We do not want to delay the implementation of 5G unduly. We all want it, we understand the need for it, but the bottom line for the U.S. airlines and for the FAA is safety is always first.”

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