AT&T and Verizon will delay the launch of a new wireless service near key airports after the country’s largest airlines said the service would interfere with aviation technology and cause massive flight disruptions.
The companies’ decision came on Tuesday when the Biden administration stepped in to see the broker try to negotiate between telecoms and airlines to roll out a new 5G service.
The companies said they will launch 5G or fifth-generation service on Wednesday, but will delay turning on 5G cell towers within a 2-mile radius of runways designated by federal officials. They didn’t say how long they would keep those towers idle.
President Joe Biden said the AT&T and Verizon solution “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger transportation, cargo operations and our economic recovery, while still allowing more than 90% of wireless tower deployments to occur on schedule.” He said the administration would continue to work on a permanent solution.
Even with the telecoms concession, there could be some cancellations and delays due to equipment limitations on some aircraft, federal officials said. Delta Air Lines also said there could be issues with flights operated in bad weather due to airport restrictions imposed by regulators last week when the 5G rollout seemed to be on schedule.
The new high-speed wireless service uses a segment of the radio spectrum close to that used by altimeters, which are devices that measure an aircraft’s height above the ground. Altimeters are used to help pilots land in low visibility conditions and they are linked to other systems on aircraft.
AT&T and Verizon say their equipment will not interfere with on-board electronics and that the technology is being used safely in 40 other countries.
However, executives from 10 passenger and cargo airlines, including American, Delta, United and Southwest, say 5G will be more revolutionary than previously thought. This is because dozens of major airports were subject to flight restrictions announced last week by the Federal Aviation Administration if 5G service was deployed nearby. The leaders added that these restrictions would not be limited to periods of poor visibility.
“If our main hubs are not allowed to fly, the vast majority of traveling and departing passengers will, in fact, be grounded. This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers will be cancelled, changed or delayed,” the CEOs said in a letter Monday to federal officials. “Frankly, national trade will stop.”
The clash between airlines and telcos and their rival regulators — the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the radio spectrum — threatened to further disrupt the aviation industry, which has been plagued by the pandemic for almost two years.
It was a crisis that took shape over the years.
Airlines and the FAA say they tried to raise an alarm about possible interference from 5G C-band, but the FCC ignored them.
Telecommunications companies, the FCC, and their proponents allege that C-band and aircraft altimeters operate far enough apart in the radio spectrum to avoid interference. They also say the aviation industry has been aware of the C-band technology for several years but has done nothing to prepare – airlines chose not to update altimeters that could be susceptible to interference, and the FAA was unable to begin screening equipment on aircraft until the last few years. . weeks.
Randall Berry, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University, compared the interference problem to two stations overlapping on the radio scale. The FCC-defined separation “may be sufficient for some (altimeters), but not for others,” he said.
Fitting all altimeters with good noise filters could be one solution, Berry said, though there could be a dispute over who would pay for the work – airlines or telcos.
After rival T-Mobile secured so-called mid-band spectrum through the acquisition of Sprint, AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars on C-band spectrum in a government auction held by the FCC to meet their own mid-band needs. , and then spent billions more building new networks, which they planned to launch in early December.
However, in response to airline concerns, they initially agreed to delay service until early January.
Late on New Year’s Eve, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steven Dickson asked companies to delay flights yet again, warning of an “unacceptable disruption” to air traffic.
AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Westberg denied the request in a letter containing a scolding, even derisive tone. But after the intervention reached the White House, they changed their minds. The CEOs agreed to a second, shorter delay, but made it clear that there would be no more compromises.
As part of the deal, the telcos agreed to reduce the capacity of their networks at about 50 airports for six months, as was the case with wireless restrictions in France. In return, the FAA and the Department of Transportation have pledged to no longer prevent the rollout of the 5G C-Band.
Biden also praised the deal, but airlines weren’t happy with the deal, seeing it as a victory for telecom companies that didn’t respond well to their concerns.
Associated Press contributors Tali Arbel of New York and Zeke Miller of Washington contributed to this story.