US telco giants Verizon and AT&T have both announced they will not turn on 5G networks in C-band spectrum near airports for now, amid an ongoing dispute with aviation authorities.

Andrew Wooden

January 19, 2022

4 Min Read
Verizon and AT&T defer 5G deployment near US airports

US telco giants Verizon and AT&T have both announced they will not turn on 5G networks in C-band spectrum near airports for now, amid an ongoing dispute with aviation authorities.

The rollout had already been deferred after the FAA and FCC claimed last November that 5G may interfere with airplane cockpit safety systems. After the initial delay of a month, an escalation to the US secretary of transportation led to an extension of that delay. And now it seems the telcos are going to have to avoid areas near an airport altogether, for now at least.

“As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports,” Verizon said in a statement today. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries. Thanks to the best team in the industry for delivering this technology which promises a revolutionary next step in wireless communications including tremendous benefits for our nation.”

Apparently the rest of its C-band 5G rollout will go ahead tomorrow.

Light Reading reports that AT&T said: “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.

“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. We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers.”

It could be seen as pertinent that airline trade organisation A4A turned up the temperature yesterday, making public a letter to National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Steve Dickson and Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Rosenworcel in which it urged that areas around airports be exempt from the imminent 5G rollouts.

It did not mince its words: “Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies. The harm that will result from deployment on January 19 is substantially worse than we originally anticipated… Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded. In addition to the chaos caused domestically, this lack of usable widebody aircraft could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas.”

Even President Biden felt compelled to make a statement on the matter today: “I want to thank Verizon and AT&T for agreeing to delay 5G deployment around key airports and to continue working with the Department of Transportation on safe 5G deployment at this limited set of locations. This agreement will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled.”

You can read a lot of frustration in the telco statements probably due to the fact the aviation authorities for some reason waited until the eve of the US 5G deployment to raise their concerns – and the fact that these concerns don’t seemed to be shared by other countries. Both also make great pains to show how voluntary the move was – though the fact the leader of the free world has now publicly weighed in could indicate some significant pressure being exerted behind closed doors.

In terms of what happens next, the aviation authorities and now the highest echelons of US government would seem to be holding all the cards. The telcos clearly can’t go ahead and switch on the disputed towers on their own timetable, so they’ll have to wait until they are told they are allowed to. Since there doesn’t seem to be any timescale or information on what methodology the authorities are employing to investigate the alleged safety concerns, and why it is that other nations have apparently managed to avoid them, when this will happen is anybody’s guess.

About the Author(s)

Andrew Wooden

Andrew joins on the back of an extensive career in tech journalism and content strategy.

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