Verizon and AT&T relent, postponing 5G deployment

Verizon and AT&T will delay deployment of new 5G networks until Jan. 19. 

The decision — part of a broader agreement with the Department of Transportation, FAA and airlines — for now ends a standoff that threatened to sow additional chaos in the national airspace system at a time when airlines have already been canceling thousands of U.S. flights daily.  

The two broadband companies had planned for 5G deployment to go live on Wednesday. 

In a statement, an AT&T spokesperson confirmed the arrangement and also said that the company has committed to implementing six-month protection zones around key airports. The zones, the FAA separately explained, will be in place at approximately 50 of the largest U.S. airports. Details on which airports were not provided. 

“We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist, and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues,” the AT&T spokesperson said. 

The FAA thanked AT&T and Verizon in its statement on the issue. 

“We look forward to using the additional time and space to reduce flight disruptions associated with this 5G deployment,” the agency said. 

The matter had come to a head over the weekend, after the CEOs of Verizon and AT&T rebuffed a request from DOT secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA administrator Steve Dickson for the additional two-week delay. 

WiFi providers had purchased the 5G spectrum rights for more than $80 billion at a Federal Communications Commission auction early last year, and Verizon and AT&T say they have spent billions of dollars more in preparation for the rollout. In addition, the companies had already delayed the rollout from its original planned date of Dec. 5. 

Driving the concern of the FAA and airlines is that 5G deployment will be on the C-Band spectrum, which encompasses a frequency range that is closer to frequencies used by aircraft than had previously been allowed in the U.S. 

Airlines and the FAA say that such broadcasts could interfere with aircraft radio altimeters, which are used primarily to measure a plane’s distance from the ground when flying at altitudes of approximately 2,500 feet and below. 

As a result, the FAA had planned to issue a series of notices prohibiting pilots from landing in low-visibility conditions at impacted airports. 

The trade group Airlines for America has said that that without effective mitigations, 5G deployment would disrupt as many as 345,000 passenger flights each year. 

Conversely, the WiFi providers have argued that the C-Band is already in use in various countries around the world and has operated without consequences for aviation. Further, they argue that the development of a globally competitive communications network is essential to the U.S. economy, public safety and national interests.

Under the agreement Verizon and AT&T made with the FAA on Monday night, the companies will implement C-Band radio exclusion zones at key airports through July 5 that are similar to buffers being deployed in France. 

In a Jan. 2 letter, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg and AT&T CEO John Stankey said France’s approach is one of the most conservative in the world.

While the buffer zone is in place, the FAA’s goal will be to develop mitigations that enable large aircraft to operate safely in all conditions, the agency said.

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