Airlines get a break: Wireless companies agree to 2-week 5G delay

Jan 4, 2022

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A potential aviation industry impasse has been averted at the last minute.

A deal was reached Monday night on the rollout of 5G technology that airline groups had warned could cause widespread flight delays and cancelations.

The deal between the federal government and two key wireless companies will delay the implementation of 5G C-band technology by two weeks, from Jan. 5 to Jan. 19. After the two-week delay, the implementation would move forward, albeit at a lower power near airports.

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“At Secretary Buttigieg’s request, we have voluntarily agreed to an additional two-week delay of our deployment of C-band 5G services,” AT&T said in a statement. “We also remain committed to the six-month protection zone mitigations we outlined in our letter. We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues.”

“We’ve agreed to a two-week delay which promises the certainty of brining this nation our game-changing 5G network in January delivered over America’s best and most reliable network,” Verizon said in its statement.

U.S. airline industry officials announced the deal on a call with reporters and were pleased by the development.

“This is potentially a really good result,” one of the officials said.

Earlier in the call, the officials from Airlines for America, the industry’s lobbying group, had told reporters they were planning a lawsuit over the 5G matter. The officials then confirmed that they were withholding the lawsuit given the deal that had been reached.

More: What you need to know about 5G interfering with aircraft

The deal represents a compromise after a blitz of correspondence during the holiday weekend. On Dec. 31, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson requested a pause of not more than two weeks. On Sunday night, the two wireless companies — AT&T and Verizon — rebuffed the request but offered to limit the signal strength of their 5G signals near airports for 6 months.

“Safety is the core of our mission and this guides all of our decisions,” the FAA said in a statement. “The FAA thanks AT&T and Verizon for agreeing to a voluntary delay and for their proposed mitigations. We look forward to using the additional time and space to reduce flight disruptions associated with this 5G deployment.”

“Last night’s agreement is a significant step in the right direction, and we’re grateful to all parties for their cooperation and good faith,” President Biden said in a statement.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel also hailed the agreement, saying in a statement that it “provides the framework and the certainty needed to achieve our shared goal of deploying 5G swiftly while ensuring air safety.”

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA took to Twitter to praise the deal.

Earlier on Monday, key aviation industry groups called on the Biden administration to intervene and delay the nationwide rollout of the 5G C-band service.

“We are just hours away from this C-band 5G rollout, yet the aviation industry is still anxiously awaiting details on how aviation will be impacted and on how crewmembers will need to operate to maintain safety and minimize disruptions,” said a coalition of groups that included the Aerospace Industries Association, the International Air Transport Association and the National Business Aviation Association.

“We respectfully call on President Biden to intervene and delay the full implementation of C-band 5G until proper risk assessments have taken place and crewmembers are fully briefed as to the extent of the disruptions,” the coalition said.

More on CNET: Verizon, AT&T agree to FAA’s request for a two-week delay on 5G expansion plans

The aviation industry and the FAA are both concerned about the 5G C-band because a 2020 study showed that signals on the C-band spectrum can interfere with a key instrument on aircraft called a radio (or radar) altimeter. That instrument is used when aircraft are near airports to precisely measure the height above the ground. High-precision instrument approaches use this data, allowing pilots to safely land aircraft in very low visibility — or for aircraft to land automatically. In addition, the FAA has warned that other flight deck instruments and safety systems that rely on radio altimeters could be also be affected.

The concern isn’t about phones carried by passengers on planes, but rather simply how signals from powerful cell towers might interact with aircraft equipment that relies on radio altimeters.

The FAA plans on issuing notices that would ban the use of these types of approaches near airports that have 5G C-band towers. Affected airports would include major hubs such as Seattle (SEA) and Houston (IAH) that are known for frequent low-visibility conditions. It’s unclear how Monday’s deal will affect the FAA’s plans to issue these notices.

Featured photo by southerlycourse/Getty Images.

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