AT&T and Verizon called the airline industry’s 5G bluff — until they didn’t

AT&T and Verizon agreed to another 5G deployment delay. The FAA now has two weeks to resolve safety concerns, but it just recently estimated the process could take three months.

An Airbus A350 plane in flight

AT&T and Verizon originally intended to use their C-band spectrum as early as Dec. 5, 2021.

Photo: Andrew Palmer/Unsplash

In the latest step of an ongoing saga, AT&T and Verizon this week agreed 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.

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.

Then, on New Year's Eve, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson sent a letter to the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon asking for yet another extension. Their proposal set a goal for full C-band deployment by the end of March, “barring unforeseen technical challenges or new safety concerns.”

The wireless executives were understandably miffed by the second extension request. They insisted that the C-band deployments wouldn’t interfere with airplane equipment, citing a Federal Communications Commission review process that wrapped up in 2020. As a concession, AT&T and Verizon also agreed to further limit the range of spectrum they use until July 5, 2022. France has adopted this more generous spectrum buffer, and the letter points out that U.S. airlines already fly there on a regular basis.

AT&T and Verizon likely agreed to the two-week extension because they understood the federal government could step in and block the rollout either way. While the negotiations between the FAA and the wireless carriers are indeed still “voluntary,” the threat of direct legal intervention underscores them.

The conflict highlights a lack of coordination between two powerful government agencies: the FAA and the FCC. The FCC raised a record-breaking $80.9 billion from the C-band auction that concluded in February 2021, and Verizon and AT&T together accounted for around 85% of the total spending. And while the FCC sold the 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.

The highly coveted C-band spectrum exists in the sweet spot for 5G. C-band has a longer range than the ultra-fast mmWave spectrum that’s still largely confined to cities and sporting venues. At the same time, C-band is significantly faster than the low-band spectrum, which sometimes isn’t even all that much faster than existing 4G LTE. In their response denying the FAA’s second delay request, AT&T and Verizon executives cited the U.S. government’s determination that China had more advanced 5G deployment in part because U.S. carriers lacked access to the best-suited spectrum.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday released a statement characterizing the new agreement as “a significant step in the right direction.” He signaled that this would be the final delay for the wireless carriers, writing: “This agreement ensures that there will be no disruptions to air operations over the next two weeks and puts us on track to substantially reduce disruptions to air operations when AT&T and Verizon launch 5G on January 19th.”

The big outstanding question, however, is what the FAA will do in the next two weeks to address their safety concerns. After all, they estimated on New Year’s Eve that it could take until the end of March 2022 to conduct all the safety measures. Another delay request could cause the “voluntary” negotiations to spill over into the courts. It would also heighten the spectacle of incompetence as two essential government agencies further contradict one another with billions of dollars at stake.


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Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

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