5G delay: AT&T, Verizon hits pause on new wireless service near some airports: here's what you should know

On Jan. 18, both AT&T and Verizon announced that they will delay the start of 5G wireless service near some airports, as concerns persist over the risk of interference with aircraft technology, which could cause massive flight disruptions.

Here's what this means for everyone, travelers and smartphone users alike.

What's the new 5G service all about?

According to the FAA, 5G services on frequencies in the so-called 'C-Band' are set to launch on Jan. 19. C-Band, according to a statement released by the Federal Communications Commission in 2020, refers to a portion of wireless band in the range of 3.7 to 4.2 GHz.

In 2020, the FCC announced that it will sell a portion of the band (3.7 GHz to 3.98 GHz) for wireless services in the contiguous United States, while allocating a nearby band (3.98 GHz to 4 GHz) as a guard band, or unused band to prevent interference. Existing satellite operations will be moved onto another portion of the band (4 GHz to 4.2 GHz)

In their 2020 statement, FCC officials say the decision will "rapidly put mid-band spectrum into the hands of innovators and consumers and pave the way for the United States to lead the world in 5G
deployment."

According to the Associated Press, wireless carriers spent billions of dollars buying up the spectrum that was up for auction in 2021. 

What happened now?

According to the Associated Press, the decision by both wireless carriers came as the Biden administration tried to broker a settlement between the telecom companies and the airlines over a rollout of the new service, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

AT&T said it would delay turning on new cell towers around runways at some airports, but did not say how many. They also say they will  work with federal regulators to settle the dispute.

A short time later, Verizon said it will launch its 5G network but added, "we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports."

The announcements by the wireless carriers came after the airline industry issued a dire warning about the impact a new type of 5G service would have on flights. CEOs of the nation's largest airlines said interference with aircraft systems would be worse than they originally thought, making many flights impossible.

"To be blunt, the nation's commerce will grind to a halt" unless the service is blocked near major airports, the CEOs said in a letter Monday to federal officials including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has previously taken the airlines' side in the matter.

Didn't they try to solve the problem recently?

Yes.

Earlier in January, FAA officials released a buffer zone list of 50 airports, where wireless companies have agreed to turn off transmitters and make other adjustments near airports on the list for six months "to minimize potential 5G interference with sensitive aircraft instruments used in low-visibility landings."

The list includes some large and medium-sized airports, such as:

  • Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
  • Charlotte Douglas International Airport
  • Chicago Midway
  • Chicago O'Hare
  • Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport
  • Dallas Love Field
  • Detroit Metropolitan Airport
  • George Bush Intercontinental Airport (Houston, Texas)
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport
  • John Wayne Airport (Orange County, Calif.)
  • LaGuardia Airport
  • Los Angeles International Airport
  • Miami International Airport
  • Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport
  • Newark Liberty International Airport
  • Philadelphia International Airport
  • Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
  • San Francisco International Airport
  • Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport
  • Seattle–Tacoma International Airport
  • William P. Hobby Airport (Houston, Texas)

FAA officials say they selected the airports based on traffic volume, the number of low-visibility days, and geographic location, in addition to input from the aviation community.

How could the new 5G service affect airports and flights?

In late 2021, airlines in the U.S. asked the FCC to delay a scheduled rollout of new 5G services due to concerns over interference with electronics that pilots rely on.

At the time, Airlines for America, a trade group for large U.S. passenger and cargo carriers, warned of significant damage if the 5G rollout goes ahead near major airports.

"Aircraft will not be able to rely on radio altimeters for numerous flight procedures and thus will not be able to land at certain airports," the group said in a filing.

A radio altimeter is a device that is capable of measuring the height of an aircraft above terrain, immediately below the aircraft.

"Data from these radio altimeters informs other safety equipment on the plane, including navigation instruments, terrain awareness, and collision-avoidance systems," according to the FAA.

The group said its 11 member airlines face the need to reroute or cancel ‘thousands’ of flights, resulting in losses topping $1 billion. The group said it had raised the issue before, but was given little attention by the FCC.

Officials with both AT&T and Verizon later announced on Jan. 3 that they will delay activating 5G services on the C-Band for two weeks. They originally had plans to launch the new service on Jan. 5 in various U.S. cities.

What's going to happen, going forward?

FAA officials say they are working with airline companies and manufacturers to look at how the radar altimeters will perform in the new environment.

"As tests prove that some altimeters are safe, the FAA will be able to remove some restrictions on operations of aircraft with those altimeters. Disruption risk will gradually decrease as more altimeters are tested and either deemed safe, retrofitted or replaced," read a portion of the website.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report. This story was reported on from Phoenix.

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