Verizon, AT&T delay 5G service launch near some airports, fears persist of impact on airplanes

Verizon and AT&T announced Tuesday that they will postpone their rollout of 5G near some airports after the airline industry warned of “catastrophic disruptions” to flights if telecoms move forward with a full-scale rollout of the service on Wednesday.

The two companies said it would work with regulators to address the airlines’ fear that 5G signals will interference with aircraft electronics such as automated landing systems.

“As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports,” Verizon said in a statement. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries.”

President Biden praised AT&T and Verizon and pledged that the administration will engage with leaders from the aviation and telecom industries to chart a path forward. 

“My team has been engaging non-stop with the wireless carriers, airlines, and aviation equipment manufacturers to chart a path forward for 5G deployment and aviation to safely co-exist — and, at my direction, they will continue to do so until we close the remaining gap and reach a permanent, workable solution around these key airports,” he said in a statement.

U.S. telecoms have twice before delayed the rollout of the 5G mobile network that is supposed to bring faster speeds and more reliable service. It was originally slated to launch on Dec. 5.

In the latest warning to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, airline CEOs said that “immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies.”

The airlines requested that Verizon and AT&T delay flipping the switch on towers within two miles of the airports that haven’t been cleared by the FAA.

The announcement from Verizon and AT&T met the airlines part of the way.

The airlines said it was not worth compromising on safety, and they will be forced to ground flights if the Biden administration does not intervene.

“Unfortunately, this will result in not only hundreds of thousands of flight cancellations and disruptions for customers across the industry in 2022, but also the suspension of cargo flights into these locations, causing a negative ripple effect on an already fragile supply chain,” United Airlines said in a statement. “We implore the Biden administration to act quickly and apply the same common-sense solutions here that have clearly worked so well around the world.”

United said close to 15,000 flights could be impacted if the rollout happens on Wednesday.

“Given the short time frame and the exigency of this completely avoidable economic calamity, we respectfully request you support and take whatever action necessary to ensure that 5G is deployed except when towers are too close to airport runways until the FAA can determine how that can be safely accomplished without catastrophic disruption,” airline executives wrote in a letter Sunday to Mr. Buttigieg and FAA administrators.

The FAA said earlier Sunday that it had cleared approximately 45% of commercial aircraft to perform “low-visibility landings at many of the airports where 5G C-band will be deployed on Jan. 19.”

“Even with these new approvals, flights at some airports may still be affected,” the FAA said. “The FAA also continues to work with manufacturers to understand how radar altimeter data is used in other flight control systems.”

After shelling out more than $81 billion in FCC service licenses in February, U.S. cellular providers are champing at the bit to light up the new frequency this week.

Verizon and AT&T delayed their Dec. 5 rollout of the new service for a month after the FAA issued a last-minute warning that cell tower emissions near airports could interfere with aircraft automated landing systems and altimeters, the instrument that shows a plane’s altitude.

A top trade group for the airline industry, Airlines for America, then filed an emergency request for the Federal Communications Commission to delay the rollout once again until Jan. 19.

In a joint statement last month from the trade groups representing the two industries, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and Airlines for America, and the Aerospace Industries Association, announced that they would “work together to share the available data from all parties to identify the specific areas of concern for aviation.”

But airline executives say they still need more time, and that a premature rollout could spell disaster for the airlines.

“Despite the recent collaboration and data sharing between the telecommunications industry, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the aviation industry, commercial aviation in the United States is facing major disruption of the traveling and shipping public based on our evaluation of the data and discussions that have been ongoing to resolve the issue of how best to deploy 5G ‘C-band’ in a safe manner around U.S. airports,” airline executives said.

The cellular providers say the fears are overblown about 5G zapping flight altimeters and automated systems that help airplanes land, and that timely rollout of the technology is “critical to the U.S.’s global leadership.”

Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said in a November op-ed that further delay could cause real harm. She said a one-year delay would subtract $50 billion in economic growth, “just as our nation recovers and rebuilds from the pandemic.

The brinksmanship has sent shockwaves across the globe. Several European countries have begun studying 5G emissions near airports in response to the concerns raised by the U.S. aviation industry.

But Steffen Ring, a telecommunications consultant in Copenhagen who has worked on the European Commission’s rollout of 5G, said lady month that the cell-service upgrades simply haven’t posed an issue for flight safety across the Atlantic, despite the European Union’s rollout being well underway.

Mr. Ring said concerns about potential 5G interference with aircraft were raised in November as delegates from across Europe met for a plenary session, possibly in response to the back and forth over the matter in the U.S.

There was little to discuss.

“Nobody spoke up,” he said. “It was absolute silence in the room. Forty-eight countries were participating, and there was absolute silence in the room.”

He said there are no plans to slow the rollout in Europe, he said. And he thinks any further pause in the U.S. would be overkill.

“As long as there is no hard evidence, then everything is rolling out according to plan,” he said. “The European Commission is very keen that this go forward.”

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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