The FAA that cried wolf on 5G
Photo: Dominik Scythe/Unsplash

The FAA that cried wolf on 5G

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Good morning! This Wednesday, AT&T and Verizon will pause their 5G rollout and a bunch more companies will likely go fully remote in 2022. My name is Hirsh Chitkara, and I was not invited to Jeff Bezos' New Year's disco party. Instead, I frantically searched for Frank Sinatra's “Auld Lang Syne” on Spotify, which apparently doesn't exist.

Failure to launch (5G)

In a deal President Biden called “a significant step in the right direction,” AT&T and Verizon agreed this week to further delay the deployment of 5G C-band spectrum following requests from the Federal Aviation Administration. The wireless carriers only agreed to a two-week delay, however, which could still allow them to expand their 5G services before the end of January as planned.

This wasn’t the first time the carriers were asked to delay. AT&T and Verizon originally intended to use their C-band spectrum as early as Dec. 5, 2021. They agreed to a 30-day delay in November due to FAA concerns about C-band deployments potentially interfering with high-performing radio altimeters used to safely land aircraft in hazardous conditions.

  • Last Friday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson asked the wireless carriers for yet another extension.
  • Their proposal would delay full C-band deployment until the end of March at the latest, “barring unforeseen technical challenges or new safety concerns.”

In a response letter to the FAA and Buttigieg, the wireless carrier CEOs insisted that the C-band deployments wouldn’t interfere with airplane equipment, citing a Federal Communications Commission review process that wrapped up in 2020.

  • They also agreed to further limit the range of spectrum they use until July 5. France has adopted this more generous spectrum buffer, and the letter points out that U.S. airlines already fly there on a regular basis.

So why the reversal? AT&T and Verizon likely agreed to the two-week extension because they understood the federal government could step in and block the rollout anyway.

  • Still, it’s a painful concession for the wireless carriers. Verizon and AT&T spent a record-breaking $45.5 billion and $23.4 billion, respectively, to buy licensing rights to C-band spectrum.
  • That’s because the C-band sits in the sweet spot for 5G and has a longer range than the ultra-fast mmWave spectrum that’s still largely confined to cities and sporting venues. C-band is also significantly faster than the low-band spectrum, which sometimes isn’t even all that much faster than existing 4G LTE.

But this might not be the end of these “voluntary” negotiations. And things could spill over into the courts if the FAA has to issue yet another delay request.

  • The FAA now has two weeks to complete safety checks that, only five days ago, it said could take until the end of March 2022 to complete.
  • The wireless carriers tried to draw a line in the sand by denying the second delay request, but the FAA thinks it has enough leverage to take all the time it needs. A third delay request isn’t unthinkable.

Another delay request would also heighten the spectacle of incompetence as two essential government agencies contradict one another with billions of dollars at stake.

  • The FCC initially sold C-band spectrum under the assumption that airplane equipment interference was a non-issue. The FAA and U.S. airlines evidently weren’t on the same page as the FCC.

Zooming out, this tells business leaders that government agencies aren’t always trustworthy business partners. After all, Verizon and AT&T spent billions to buy an asset from one agency, only to be told by another that they can’t use it as promised. These are the kinds of mishaps well-run governments avoid. Then again, if the 5G signal presents as great a safety risk as the FAA seems to believe, it’s at least good to see the agency prioritize public safety over corporate profits.

— Hirsh Chitkara (email | twitter)

A version of this story first appeared on Protocol.com. Read it here.

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