Written by David Koenig, AB Airways writer
AT&T and Verizon will delay the launch of a new wireless service near some airports after the country’s largest airlines said the service would interfere with aircraft technology and cause major disruptions to aviation.
The decision arrived from carriers on Tuesday as the Biden administration attempted to broker a settlement between carriers and carriers over the rollout of a new 5G service, scheduled for Wednesday.
Airlines want to ban the new service within two miles of the airport’s runways.
AT&T said it would delay operating new cell towers around runways at some airports – and did not specify the number – and would work with federal regulators to settle the dispute.
Shortly thereafter, Verizon said it would launch its own 5G network, but added, “We have voluntarily decided to restrict our 5G network around airports.” She blamed airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, saying they “have not been able to fully resolve 5G navigation around airports” even though they operate in more than 40 countries.
The announcements came after the airline industry issued a dire warning about the impact of a new type of 5G service on flights. The chief executives of the country’s largest airlines have said interference with aircraft systems will be worse than they originally thought, making many flights impossible.
The chief executives said in a letter Monday to federal officials including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has previously taken the airlines’ side on the matter.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that if “hundreds or thousands of flights” were to be grounded, it would affect passengers and freight for the country’s supply chain. “We want to avoid and prevent that,” she said.
Psaki said those involved in ongoing negotiations with airlines and communications include Battigieg, members of President Joe Biden’s economic team, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.
The new high-speed wireless service uses a portion of the radio spectrum, the C-Band, which is close to that used by altimeters, devices that measure the height of aircraft above the ground. Altimeters are used to help pilots land when visibility is poor, and are linked to other systems on aircraft.
AT&T and Verizon say their devices will not interfere with aircraft electronics, and that the technology is being used safely in many other countries.
However, the chief executives of 10 passenger and cargo airlines including US, Delta, United and Southwest say 5G will be more disruptive than previously thought because dozens of large airports were set to have buffer zones. To prevent 5G interference with aircraft, they will remain subject to flight restrictions announced by the Federal Aviation Administration last week. They add that these limitations will not be limited to times when visibility is poor.
“Unless our main aviation hubs are cleared, the vast majority of passengers and cargo will essentially be grounded. This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers will experience cancellations, diversions or delays.”
The standoff between two industries and their rival regulators — the FAA and the FCC, which oversees the radio spectrum — threatens to further disrupt the airline industry, which has been crippled by the pandemic for nearly two years.
This was a crisis that had been building for years.
The airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) say they tried to sound alerts about potential interference from the 5G C-Band but were ignored by the FCC.
Carriers, the Federal Communications Commission, and their proponents argue that C-band and aircraft altimeters operate at a sufficient distance on the radio spectrum to avoid interference. They also say the airline industry has been aware of C-Band technology for several years but has done nothing to prepare – airlines chose not to upgrade altimeters that could be subject to interference, and the FAA failed to start scanning equipment on planes until years ago. The past few weeks.
After rival T-Mobile secured so-called mid-band spectrum from its acquisition of Sprint, AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars on C-Band spectrum in a government auction run by the FCC to support their mid-band needs, then spent Billions more to build new networks they were planning to launch in early December.
In response to the airlines’ concern, they agreed to postpone the service until early January.
Late on New Year’s Eve, Buttigieg and FAA Director Stephen Dixon asked companies for another delay, warning of an “unacceptable disruption” to air service.
AT&T CEO John Stanke and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg rejected the request in a letter that had a rebuke, even sarcastic tone. But they had second thoughts after the intervention that reached the White House. They agreed to the second, shorter delay but hinted that there would be no more concessions.
This followed a deal in which carriers agreed to reduce the capacity of their networks near 50 airports for six months, similar to France’s wireless restrictions. In return, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation have promised not to oppose the introduction of the 5G C-Band.
Biden praised the deal, but airlines were unhappy with the agreement, viewing it as a victory for carriers that had not adequately addressed their concerns about trying to land planes at airports where the new service would be active.
Tali Arbel from New York contributed to this story.
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