AT&T and Verizon agree to another 5G delay around airports

What’s happening

AT&T and Verizon agree to delay the roll out of 5G on C-band spectrum for another year, while the Federal Aviation Administration ensures affected aircraft upgrade altimeters to avoid interference issues.

Why it matters

The FAA says it’s been working closely with wireless carriers and airlines to make sure there are no flight delays and to ensure the widest possible access to 5G service.

The Federal Aviation Administration has struck a deal with AT&T and Verizon to once again delay the roll out of some 5G radios until July 2023 to give airlines more time to retrofit airplane equipment to ensure there won’t be interference issues. 

This latest delay comes after the carriers and the FAA agreed in January to delay the roll out of 5G near some airport runways through July 5 of this year. The two nationwide carriers began rolling out their upgrade to their 5G networks with so-called C-band spectrum on Jan. 5. The radio airwaves, which the carriers spent a combined $70 billion acquiring last year, were poised to provide a big boost to their 5G speed and coverage. 

But the carriers agreed to hold off on deploying the service around certain airports as part of a deal worked out between the FAA and the airlines. The FAA and airlines are concerned that signals from 5G service using the C-band spectrum could interfere with receivers on altimeters that use a nearby spectrum band. Altimeters are instruments used on planes to detect the ground when landing in low visibility conditions. 

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“We believe we have identified a path that will continue to enable aviation and 5G C-band wireless to safely co-exist,” Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement on Friday. “We appreciate the willingness of Verizon and AT&T to continue this important and productive collaboration with the aviation industry.”

Verizon said on Friday in a statement the latest agreement will allow the company to “lift the voluntary limitations on our 5G network deployment around airports in a staged approach over the coming months.”  

AT&T said through the months of working with the FAA it had “developed a more tailored approach to controlling signal strength around runways that allows us to activate more towers and increase signal strength.” AT&T said in its statement that it had voluntarily “chosen in good faith to implement these more tailored precautionary measures so that airlines have additional time to retrofit equipment.”

Tensions between the wireless carriers and the FAA became public last year right before the roll out of the 5G service using C-band spectrum. In November, the FAA began threatening to restrict flights over concerns that the 5G service would cause interference on some altimeters. The carriers agreed to delay the roll out of their service, but the issue came to head in January when the carriers began turning on the service and major international airlines, including Emirates, Japan Airlines and ANA, started canceling flights involving Boeing-made planes to several major US airports.  

The airlines resumed flights within days as the FAA began issuing new approvals for aircraft it knew would not be affected by potential interference. 

But the process to ensure the interference issues are mitigated for all aircraft has been a slow one. In April, US Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told senators that the technological fix to address the FAA’s concerns “won’t be completely resolved by this summer” and that it remained a “top concern.” 

The FAA said Friday that the phased approach requires operators of regional aircraft with radio altimeters most susceptible to interference to retrofit their planes with radio frequency filters by the end of 2022.  The agency also said it’s also been working with wireless carriers to identify airports where they can safely boost the signals of their 5G service without disrupting flight schedules.

The FAA added that airlines and other operators of aircraft that use radio altimeters that are affected must install filters as soon as possible. The agency expects the work to retrofit altimeters to be largely completed by July 2023. 

“After that time, the wireless companies expect to operate their networks in urban areas with minimal restrictions,” the FAA said in its statement.

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