AT&T and Verizon delay 5G deployment near some airports

Companies have twice delayed 5G deployment after the aviation industry warned interference could disrupt radar systems

Airlines and the FAA worry that new 5G services from wireless companies could affect aircraft radar. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Airlines and the FAA worry that new 5G services from wireless companies could affect aircraft radar. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 18, 2022 at 2:04pm, Updated at 6:27pm

The two companies that hope to use a swath of radio spectrum to launch the next generation of wireless phone technology starting Wednesday said they’ll delay its deployment around some airports to ensure aviation safety.

AT&T, which along with Verizon last year bought a swath of spectrum for more than $80 billion, said in a statement early Tuesday that it will “temporarily defer” turning on some of the towers it had planned to use to deploy 5G in order to ensure they don’t interfere with aircraft radar altimeters, which help planes navigate in low-visibility situations.

Verizon followed suit hours later, saying it would “voluntarily” limit its 5G network around airports where it might interfere with aircraft operations.

Neither company identified the airports in question.

The companies have already twice delayed 5G deployment after outcry from the aviation industry, which has warned that interference could at best disrupt aircraft and at worst pose a risk to the flying public. 

Tensions remain.

AT&T, clearly frustrated with the delay, said the airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration have had two years “to responsibly plan for this deployment.” The company noted that 40 countries have been able to deploy 5G technology near airports without disrupting aviation.

Verizon expressed similar frustrations. 

“The Federal Aviation Administration and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 countries,” a Verizon spokesman said. 

Still, the company said it plans to deploy 5G.

“Americans have been clamoring for 5G and tomorrow we will deliver it,” the spokesman said.

Heads of both agencies overseeing the agreement expressed relief Tuesday.

“It is essential that the FAA now complete this process with both care and speed,” said Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

“The complex U.S. airspace leads the world in safety because of our high standards for aviation, and we will maintain this commitment as wireless companies deploy 5G,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

A coalition of House Republicans, including Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Sam Graves, criticized the administration’s handling of the issue.

“By lurching from one arbitrary deadline to the next with no clear plan or strategy for resolution,” the Republicans said in a news release, “this Administration’s negligence continues to delay finding a lasting solution that improves our everyday wireless communication while protecting aviation safety.”

‘Catastrophic disruption’

The telecommunications companies’ decisions came after the heads of major airlines warned of a “catastrophic disruption” if AT&T and Verizon deploy the new technology as scheduled on Wednesday.

Airlines asked the federal government to implement 5G “everywhere in the country except within the approximately 2 miles of airport runways at affected airports as defined by the FAA on January 19, 2022.” Doing so, they wrote, would allow 5G to be deployed while avoiding delays in travel and the supply chain. 

The airlines’ letter came even as the FAA announced it had cleared about 45 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at many of the airports where the 5G will be deployed Wednesday. 

Specifically, the FAA approved two radio altimeter models that are installed in many Boeing and Airbus aircraft, opening up runways at about 48 of the 88 airports that would be affected by 5G interference.

Separately, however, international airlines were still expressing concern after the two telecom announcements: Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Air India and Emirates all announced plans to suspend flights to some U.S. cities because of concerns about the impact of 5G deployment.

Some delays

Verizon and AT&T purchased the bandwidth in February 2021 in the 3.7-3.98 GHz range for about $80 billion. Altimeters generally operate on the 4.2-4.4 GHz range of the C-Band, and the FAA is concerned enough about the potential for interference that in December it warned it may have to ground aircraft during certain conditions in order to ensure safe flights. 

T-Mobile, which also offers 5G services, does not operate in that band.

President Joe Biden thanked the wireless companies for agreeing to the delay. “This agreement will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled,” Biden said.

Airlines successfully delayed a scheduled Jan. 6 deployment in order to give the FAA time to determine how best to proceed. But airlines warned in their letter that “the harm that will result from deployment on Jan. 19 is substantially worse than we originally anticipated.”

Should nothing change, they warned, “every one of the passenger and cargo carriers will be struggling to get people, shipments, planes and crews where they need to be. 

“To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

The telecommunications industry argues that some 40 countries have deployed this technology and the aviation industry should have expressed its specific concerns far sooner.

Greg Guice, director of government affairs at Public Knowledge, which advocates for an open internet, said airlines and the FAA failed to coordinate sooner with the FCC. He said the issue is one of altimeters, not the network, and pointed to other countries’ deployment as proof that it can be done.

“Because someone is saying, literally, planes will fall out of the sky, it kind of raises the bar,” he said. “Whether there’s merit to the statement or not, it raises the bar.” 

On Tuesday, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., expressed relief about AT&T and Verizon’s announcement but cautioned that the delays are temporary.

“These temporary measures should allow for the uninterrupted operation of the U.S. aviation system, but these are just that: temporary measures,” he said, adding that the FAA needs to determine which long-term changes are needed at affected airports. “Without mitigation, we’re looking at disastrous disruptions to our national airspace system.”