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AT&T and Verizon delay 5G rollout around US airports for another year

US operators AT&T and Verizon have agreed to hold off deploying 5G around airports in the US until July 2023, until airlines are able to install upgrades to radio altimeters.

AT&T and Verizon have agreed to extend the current delay in rolling out C-band 5G around airports in the US until 2023, following ongoing claims that the frequency could disrupt aircraft as they take off and land. The delayed expansion of 5G to areas around airports was due to happen imminently, but the FAA announced Friday that operators have offered to ‘continue with some level of voluntary mitigations for another year.’

“We believe we have identified a path that will continue to enable aviation and 5G C-band wireless to safely co-exist,” said Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen. “We appreciate the willingness of Verizon and AT&T to continue this important and productive collaboration with the aviation industry.”

Meanwhile airlines must install filters or other enhancements to affected radio altimeters as soon as possible. The equipment required to do this ‘should be available on a schedule that would permit the work to be largely completed by July 2023,’ says the FAA. After that it says the wireless companies expect to operate their networks in urban areas with ‘minimal restrictions.’

“Today’s announcement identifies a path forward that will enable Verizon to make full use of our C-Band spectrum for 5G around airports on an accelerated and defined schedule,” said Craig Silliman, Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer at Verizon. “Under this agreement reached with the FAA, we will lift the voluntary limitations on our 5G network deployment around airports in a staged approach over the coming months meaning even more consumers and businesses will benefit from the tremendous capabilities of 5G technology. This progress is the result of months of close collaboration with the FAA, FCC and aviation industry, and sets the stage for continued, robust 5G deployment.”

As reported by Light Reading, AT&T added in a statement: “We have developed a more tailored approach to controlling signal strength around runways that allows us to activate more towers and increase signal strength. Though our FCC licenses allow us to fully deploy much-needed C-band spectrum right now, we have chosen in good faith to implement these more tailored precautionary measures so that airlines have additional time to retrofit equipment. We will continue to work with the aviation community as we move toward the expiration of all such voluntary measures by next summer.”

Just three days ago a letter from the FAA addressed to airlines emerged urging them to move quickly to address risks from a 5G wireless rollout, in a bid to avoid potential disruptions at key airports from next month. The regulator apparently asked airlines to urgently press ahead with retrofitting radio altimeters, saying “there are no guarantees that all large markets will retain the current (safeguards),” and warned that as operators boost signals some “less capable aircraft” may be unable to access certain airports without altimeter retrofits, and that the date of the rollout “is rapidly approaching.”

Well, it’s less rapidly approaching now.

The whole debacle has been rolling on for a while. The rollout had originally been deferred after the FAA and FCC claimed in November 2021 that 5G may interfere with airplane cockpit safety systems. After the initial delay of a month, various escalations to the US secretary of transportation and even president Biden led to numerous extensions before this latest one.

In the public facing statements at least everyone appears to be playing nice now, but the spat between the aviation and telecoms industry as to whether 5G is disruptive to planes sounded a bit more heated in previous months. You would expect that this year-long extension will give everyone involved the breathing room to deal with the issue once and for all, but as this is fairly uncharted waters and there have been so many delays already, that’s not a cast-iron certainty.

 

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