AT&T, Verizon puts some new 5G on hiatus after airlines sounded the alarm

The aviation industry is stepping up efforts in a showdown with AT&T and Verizon over plans to launch a new 5G wireless service this week, warning that thousands of flights could be grounded or delayed if the rollout takes place near major airports.

AT&T and Verizon will delay the launch of new wireless service near major airports after the country’s largest airlines said the service would disrupt aircraft technology and cause massive flight disruptions.

The decision by the telecommunications companies came on Tuesday, when the Biden administration tried to mediate a settlement between the telecommunications companies and the airlines about a rollout of a new 5G service, which is planned for Wednesday.

Airlines want the new service banned within two miles of airport runways.

AT&T said it would delay the ignition of new cell towers around runways at some airports – it did not say how many or for how long – and work with federal regulators to settle the dispute.

Shortly afterwards, Verizon said it would launch its 5G network, but added, “we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports.” It blamed airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, saying they “have not been able to fully address 5G navigation around airports,” even though it operates in more than 40 countries.

The announcements came after the aviation industry issued a stern warning about the impact a new type of 5G service would have on flights. CEOs of the country’s largest airlines said that interference with aircraft systems would be worse than they originally thought, making many flights impossible.

“To be honest, the nation’s trade will stall,” unless the service is blocked near major airports, CEOs said in a letter Monday to federal officials, including Transport Minister Pete Buttigieg, who has previously taken the airlines’ side in the matter. .

President Joe Biden said the agreements between AT&T and Verizon “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90% of the roll-out of wireless towers to take place as planned.” He said the administration will continue to work with both sides to reach a permanent solution around key airports.

The new wireless high-speed service uses a segment of the radio spectrum, the C-Band, that is close to that used by altimeters, which are devices that measure the altitude of the aircraft above ground. Altimeters are used to help pilots land when visibility is poor and they link to other systems on aircraft.

AT&T and Verizon say their equipment will not interfere with avionics and that the technology is being used safely in many other countries.

However, the CEOs of 10 passenger and cargo airlines, including American, Delta, United and Southwest, say 5G will be more disruptive than previously thought because dozens of major airports would have to have buffer zones to prevent 5G interference with aircraft , will still be subject to flight restrictions announced last week by the FAA. They add that these restrictions will not be limited to times when visibility is poor.

“Unless our large hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of travelers and shipping will essentially be grounded. This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subject to cancellations, redirects or delays, ”said the CEOs.

The showdown between two industries and their rival regulators – the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees radio spectrum – threatens to further disrupt the aviation industry, which has been hit by the pandemic for nearly two years.

This was a crisis that was going on for many years.

The aviation industry and the FAA say they have tried to alert about potential interference from the 5G C-Band, but the FCC ignored them.

Telecommunications, the FCC and their proponents claim that C-Band and flight altimeters operate far enough apart on the radio spectrum to avoid interference. They also say that the aviation industry has known about C-Band technology for several years but did nothing to prepare – airlines chose not to upgrade altimeters that could be subject to interference, and the FAA failed to start measuring equipment on fly before the last couple. weeks.

After rival T-Mobile got what is called the mid-band spectrum from their acquisition of Sprint, AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars on the C-Band spectrum at a government auction run by the FCC to support their own mid-band needs. , then spent billions more on building new networks, which they planned to launch in early December.

However, in response to concerns from the airlines, they initially agreed to postpone the route until early January.

Late New Year’s Eve, Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson asked the companies for another delay and warned of “unacceptable disruption” of air traffic.

AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg rejected the request in a letter that had a scolding, even mocking tone. But they had other thoughts after intervention that reached the White House. The CEOs agreed to the second, shorter delay, but suggested there would be no more compromises.

In that agreement, the telecommunications companies agreed to reduce the power of their network near 50 airports for six months, corresponding to wireless restrictions in France. In return, the FAA and the Department of Transportation did not further promise to oppose the rollout of the 5G C-Band.

Biden praised the deal, but the airlines were not happy with the deal and saw it as a victory for the telecommunications companies, which did not adequately address their concerns.

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Tali Arbel in New York and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this story.

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