Bulletins

Airlines ground 5G deployment for the third time

Verizon and AT&T voluntarily agreed to defer turning on C-Band signals near airports due to FAA safety concerns.

A plane driving down the runway at a large airport.

Verizon and AT&T agreed to defer turning on C-Band 5G near airports.

Photo: Bao Menglong/Unsplash

Groundhog Day came early for Verizon and AT&T.

The wireless carriers agreed to a voluntary third delay of full C-Band 5G rollout over concerns that the wireless signal would interfere with aircraft radio equipment.


“At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment," an AT&T spokesperson told Protocol.

On Monday, executives from major U.S. airlines sent a letter to senior government officials, warning that thousands of flights would be canceled if Verizon and AT&T proceeded with their plan to utilize C-Band 5G on Wednesday.

“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” wrote the executives, who represented major U.S. passenger airlines such as American, Delta and United, alongside logistics giants UPS Airlines and FedEx Express. The letter was sent to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Steve Dickson and Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel.

The ongoing conflict stems from lingering concerns that C-Band 5G signals will interfere with high-performing radio altimeters, which are used to safely land aircraft in hazardous conditions. Verizon and AT&T have insisted that it wouldn’t be an issue, citing an FCC review process. That FCC safety clearance set the stage for a record-breaking C-Band spectrum auction in February 2021 that raised $80.9 billion, 85% of which came from Verizon and AT&T.

Rather than propose another full delay of C-Band rollout, the airline executives requested that “5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles (3.2 km) of airport runways.”

The wireless carriers' reluctant acceptance of these terms represents the third delay in full C-Band deployment. Verizon and AT&T first agreed to a 30-day delay in November 2021, pushing the expected deployment from Dec. 5, 2021 to Jan. 5, 2022. Then, on New Year’s Day, Buttigieg and Dickson proposed another delayed rollout plan that promised full C-band deployment by the end of March. AT&T and Verizon initially rejected this proposal, but later agreed to a two-week extension, which was set to expire Wednesday.

Despite the optimism surrounding the two-week agreement, a tidy resolution was always a long shot. The FAA set out to complete a safety review process in two weeks after initially estimating it would take three months.

On Sunday, the FAA announced that it had only cleared an estimated 45% of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform these low-visibility landings. The FAA said it expected to approve more in the coming days. That evidently wasn’t all that reassuring to airlines, which were set to go into Wednesday without full clearance to land critical aircraft such as the Boeing 777.

“We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner,” said the AT&T spokesperson.

Inflation and hampered supply chains have become two of the major issues heading into the midterm elections. This focus gives airlines the upper hand in petitioning the federal government to avoid further supply chain difficulties stemming from air freight shutdowns. The wireless carriers presented a less compelling angle — in their letter denying the FAA’s second delay request, AT&T and Verizon said C-Band 5G deployment would be critical in helping the U.S. catch up to China.

This story was updated to reflect Verizon's agreement to the terms.

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