AT&T and Verizon to limit 5G rollout to avoid aviation turmoil

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Airlines said on Monday that the harm caused by 5G deployments would be significantly worse than they had anticipated.
Airlines said on Monday that the harm caused by 5G deployments would be significantly worse than they had anticipated. Photo Credit: 06photo/Shutterstock

AT&T and Verizon have agreed to temporarily limit 5G WiFi deployment around some airports. But both broadband providers say they will otherwise go forward with launches of the new services on Jan. 19. 

"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," an AT&T spokesperson said Tuesday. 

Verizon issued a similar statement. Neither provider specified how many or to which airports the moves would apply. And neither said how large of a buffer zone they would provide around the impacted airports. 

Airlines warn about impending chaos

The Verizon and AT&T announcements came a day after the CEOs of the 10 U.S. airlines that are members of the Airlines for America (A4A) trade group warned of impending chaos in a letter again imploring the Biden administration to prevent the companies from beginning 5G transmissions on the C-Band spectrum within two miles of affected airport runways. 

"Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies," the CEOs wrote to the heads of the FAA, DOT and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Economic Council director Brian Deese. 

The C-Band encompasses a frequency range that is closer to frequencies used by aircraft than has previously been allowed in the U.S. 

On Jan. 13, the FAA issued notices directing pilots not to perform low-visibility landings at nearly 100 airports that could be impacted by C-Band transmission. The notices will apply to aircraft equipped with radio altimeters that have either proven not to be reliable within areas impacted by C-Band transmission or that have not yet been tested for such reliability. 

Altimeters, which are used to measure a plane's distance from the ground when flying at altitudes of approximately 2,500 feet and below, are especially important during approaches and landings in bad weather conditions.

FAA clears some aircraft, but not all

On Monday, the FAA cleared an estimated 45% of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landing at 48 of the 88 airports that will be most affected by 5G interference, the agency said. Approved aircraft include some Boeing 737s, 747s, 757s and 767s, as well as some Airbus A319s, A320s, A321s, A330s and A350s. 

No regional aircraft nor any Boeing 777s or 787s had been approved, though the FAA said it expects to issue more approvals in the coming days. 

"Even with these new approvals, flights at some airports may still be affected," the agency said. "The FAA also continues to work with manufacturers to understand how radar altimeter data is used in other flight-control systems. Passengers should check with their airlines if weather is forecast at a destination where 5G interference is possible."

Two weeks ago, A4A agreed to an arrangement under which AT&T and Verizon would begin C-Band transmissions on Jan. 19, while implementing six-month protection zones around 50 of the most impacted airports. 

Concern about grounding planes

But in their Monday letter, the airline executives said that the harm caused by 5G deployment would be significantly worse than they had anticipated. 

One reason, they said, is that most of the 50 airports slated to have protection zones around them are nevertheless among the airports that the FAA has made subject to flight restrictions, beginning Jan. 19. 

Further, said the airline executives, the restrictions will not be limited to poor weather conditions because radio altimeters provide critical information to other aircraft safety systems.

"Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded," the executives said. "In addition to the chaos caused domestically, this lack of usable widebody aircraft could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas."

On Tuesday evening, A4A said it that it appreciates the concessions made by the WiFi providers. "We have not yet seen the details of the agreements. However, this pause provides the opportunity to ensure all stakeholders, consumers and the U.S. economy are served in the long run," the trade group said.

In their statements Tuesday, AT&T and Verizon criticized airlines and the FAA for not resolving potential problems related to the C-Band deployment in the two years since plans to allocate that spectrum were put into place by the FCC. 

"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," the AT&T spokesperson said. 

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