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Airline Opposition Prompts Wireless Companies to Delay 5G Rollout

Madhu Unnikrishnan

January 4th, 2022 at 1:17 PM EST

AT&T and Verizon have agreed to delay their 5G wireless network rollout by two weeks, defusing for now a interagency fight that pits the wireless and technology companies and their regulator against the Transportation Department (DOT) and the airline and aerospace industries and their unions.

The 5G networks were expected to go live on January 5, but Verizon and AT&T agreed to the delay in order to allow DOT to study the effect the technology could have on avionics. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a December 31 letter, asked for the delay so that the FAA could identify airports where interference could pose a problem and for the agency to issue new guidelines for airlines and pilots. Without the pause, the air transport system could be snarled by additional delays, on top of those caused by winter weather and the Omicron variant.

“Failure to reach a solution by January 5 will force the U.S. aviation sector to take steps to protect the safety of the traveling public, particularly during periods of low visibility or inclement weather,” Buttigieg wrote. “These steps will result in widespread and unacceptable disruption as airplanes divert to other cities or flights are canceled, causing ripple effects throughout the U.S. air transportation system.”

“At Secretary Buttigieg’s request, we have voluntarily agreed to one additional two-week delay of our deployment of C-Band 5G services,” an AT&T spokesperson said in a statement. “We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues.”

“We’ve agreed to a two-week delay which promises the certainty of bringing this nation our game-changing 5G network in January, delivered over America’s best and most reliable wireless network,” added Verizon spokesman Richard Young.

“It’s clear that this irresponsible rollout of 5G wasn’t ready for takeoff, and that’s why U.S. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, ALPA and others frontline aviation workers and stakeholders had called for a delay in implementation,” Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) President Joe DePete said. “We are hopeful that this delay will enable the wireless industry and the broader aviation community to work together on effective solutions that will ensure that every passenger and cargo flight arrives safely without severe disruptions to aviation operations.”

Buttigieg’s letter elicited a furious response from Brendan Carr, commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). “This is a highly irregular request and one that deviates from the clear, statutory process specified by Congress for regulating the provision of wireless service,” Carr wrote to Buttigieg. “Your request for delay is not backed up by the science, engineering, or law.”

The FCC, which regulates the wireless industry, approved the 5G networks last year, and the agency agreed to delay the deployment by one month from December 5, 2021 to January 5. “The DOT and aviation stakeholders had a lengthy and fair opportunity to participate in the relevant regulatory process. And they did. The FCC then adjudicated and resolved all of the issues consistent with the process established by Congress,” Carr wote.

The DOT and aviation groups requested the delay out of concerns that the C-Band frequency used by the 5G networks could interfere with aircraft radio altimeters. The FAA late last year issued an airworthiness directive warning of potential interference and said it could recommend “further mitigation” measures, which could include restricting low-visibility landings at certain airports.

But the FCC and the wireless companies argue that the FAA and the aviation industry had plenty of time to address these issues. “Inexplicably, the FAA and the aviation industry apparently did nothing following the February 2020 order or even after the C-Band auction closed in January 2021. In fact, it was not until November 2, 2021 that the FAA even issued a notice to begin collecting data about altimeters from the aviation industry,” AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg wrote in a sharply worded January 2 letter to Buttigieg.

“Now, on the evening of New Year’s Eve, just five days before the C-Band spectrum will be deployed, we received your letter asking us to take still more voluntary steps — to the detriment of our millions of consumer, business and government customers — to once again assist the aviation industry and the FAA after failing to resolve issues in that costly 30-day delay period, which we never considered to be an initial one.”

The issue has united a broad coalition of aviation industry groups, including Airlines for America, the Aerospace Industries Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Airports Council International – North America, IATA, and several U.S. airline unions, including ALPA and the Association of Flight Attendants.

The coalition, as well as the DOT, argue that other countries that have deployed 5G networks have used lower-power transmitters and have restricted the networks around busy airports. They have identified several airports, which include all of the New York-area and Los Angeles-area airports and most of the busiest airports in the U.S., where the planned 5G networks could interfere with radio altimeters.

The two-week delay affords FAA time to address potential interference issues at these airports. “During this time, the FAA will review information relating to the size of the buffer zone around critical airports and will seek to reduce the size when safely able based on data from aviation manufacturers,” Buttigieg said in his letter.

“We appreciate the leadership of Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Dickson and National Economic Council (NEC) Director Deese in reaching the agreement with AT&T and Verizon to delay their planned 5G C-band deployment around certain airports for two weeks and to commit to the proposed mitigations,” Airlines for America President Nicholas Calio said.

Note: This report was updated with comments from Airlines for America.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

January 4th, 2022 at 1:17 PM EST


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