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AT&T and Verizon suspend 5G rollout after airlines raise alarm

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 aviation technology and cause massive flight disruptions.

The telcos’ decision came Tuesday as the Biden administration tried to negotiate between telcos and airlines to roll out a new 5G service scheduled for Wednesday.

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

AT&T said it will delay the installation of new cell towers around runways at some airports – an unspecified number – and will work with federal regulators to resolve the dispute.

Verizon soon said it would launch its 5G network, but added, “We have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports.” He blamed airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, saying they “failed to fully allow 5G navigation around airports” even though the technology is operational in more than 40 countries.

The announcements come after the aviation industry issued a dire warning about the impact a new type of 5G service will have on flights. The leaders of the country’s largest airlines have said the interference with aircraft systems will be worse than they initially thought, making many flights impossible.

“Frankly, national trade will come to a halt” unless service is blocked near major airports, CEOs said Monday in a letter to federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who had previously sided with airlines on the issue. .

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said if “hundreds or thousands of flights” are stopped, it will affect passengers and the delivery of goods needed for the national supply chain. “We want to avoid it and prevent it,” she said.

WATCH: White House Infrastructure Adviser Landrieu and Psaki’s press secretary hold a briefing

Psaki said those involved in ongoing negotiations with airlines and telcos included Buttigieg, 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 segment of the C-band radio spectrum that is 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 many other countries.

However, executives from 10 passenger and cargo airlines, including American, Delta, United and Southwest, say 5G will be more disruptive than previously thought as dozens of major airports, which were supposed to have buffer zones to prevent 5G interference from aircraft, will continue to be subject to the flight restrictions announced last week by the FAA. They add that these restrictions will 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 executives said.

A clash between the two industries and their rival regulators – the FAA and FCC that control the radio spectrum – threatens to further undermine the aviation industry, which has been plagued by the pandemic for nearly two years now.

It was a crisis that took shape over the years.

The airline 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 have chosen not to update altimeters that could be susceptible to interference, and the FAA has not been able to start surveying equipment on aircraft until the past few years. . weeks.

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 concerns from the airlines, they agreed to delay the service until early January.

Late on New Year’s Eve, Buttigieg and FAA administrator Stephen Dickson asked the companies for another delay, 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 they changed their minds after the intervention reached the White House. They agreed to a second, shorter delay, but implied that there would be no more compromises.

This was followed by a deal in which telecommunications companies agreed to reduce the capacity of their networks at about 50 airports for six months, similar to 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 praised the deal, but airlines weren’t happy with the deal, seeing it as a victory for telcos that didn’t respond well to their concerns about trying to land planes at airports where the new service would operate.

Tali Arbel from New York contributed to this story.

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