Aviation, Aerospace Industries Want Longer C-Band Delay

More voices are now calling for a longer delay of 5G use on C-band. The Aerospace Industries Association is leading a coalition of organizations representing aerospace manufacturers, airlines, pilots, and operators in urging the FCC and FAA to form a joint industry working group to bring the aviation and telecom industries together to find a long-term solution that it says will protect the flying public by ensuring radio altimeters will operate accurately while allowing 5G to roll out.

In a letter to the National Economic Council, the coalition wants the NEC to work with the FCC and FAA. “The goal of this working group would be to reach acceptable mitigations,” they write. “Aviation will not be able to maintain the current level of public safety and economic activity without support from the Biden-Harris administration and the implementation of mitigations by the cellular industry.”

The letter comes on the heels of the FAA issuing a bulletin alerting manufacturers, operators, and pilots that action may be needed to address potential interference with radio altimeters caused by 5G systems. Radio altimeters are crucial systems used by every commercial aircraft and helicopter and many general aviation aircraft, notes the coalition. 

Twenty-one organizations signed the letter, including the Air Line Pilots Association, Boeing, Garmin, Honeywell, the Cargo Airline Association, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and the National Air Carrier Association.

How We Got Here   

Last week, AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay C-band operations for one month — until January 5, 2022, Inside Towers reported. They paid a combined $68.9 billion for C-band licenses. In a joint statement, the FCC and FAA said they would, “continue to coordinate closely to ensure that the United States keeps pace with the rest of the world in deploying next-generation communications technologies safely and without undue delay.” 

The spectrum licensed primarily by the big three U.S. operators for mid-band 5G service falls in the 3.7-3.98 GHz band. To clear the lower portion for auction, the FCC made satellite companies and their associated earth stations vacate the lower portion of the C-band to be repacked into the upper portion of the band. The agency changed their licenses, reflecting they no longer have the full use of C-band, but are now restricted to the upper portion of the band.

Radar altimeters used by aviators operate between 4.2 GHz and 4.4 GHz. The aviation and aerospace industries say radio altimeters could experience harmful interference from nearby 5G wireless operations.

CTIA Fights Back Hard

Carrier trade association CTIA calls opponents’ analysis “flawed” in an FCC filing, and says it’s raised these concerns for more than a year. It notes the portion of the C-band to be used by telecoms is 500 MHz away from the aviation radio altimeter band. “[T]hese claims ignore that 5G has been deployed in the C-Band across the globe without any evidence of harmful interference to altimeters, further underscoring why the aviation-sponsored study cannot be relied upon,” said CTIA.

“Nearly 40 countries have already adopted rules and deployed hundreds of thousands of 5G base stations in the C-Band at similar frequencies and similar power levels—and in some instances, at closer proximity to aviation operations—than 5G will be in the U.S.,” said CTIA. “None of these countries has reported any harmful interference with aviation equipment from these commercial deployments, as the Federal Aviation Administration recently confirmed.”

CTIA also says live flight testing confirms that C-band 5G operations coexist today with radio altimeter operations. CTIA urged the FCC to keep the 5G deployment timeline on C-band on track.

AT&T and Verizon “are playing it cool publicly,” reported SDXCentral, however, AT&T said last week: “It’s critical that these discussions be informed by science and the data.” CTIA told the FCC that its members “are making substantial investments to implement C-band operations this year, and every six-month delay in deployment could cost our country $25 billion in economic benefits from these next-generation deployments.”

What Could Happen Next?

Industry analysts have been warning since the delay was announced that it could last longer than one month. New Street Research Policy Advisor Blair Levin wrote in a client note last week that while a short delay is “immaterial,” any long delay benefits T-Mobile to the detriment of AT&T and Verizon because T-Mobile is rolling out its 5G network primarily in the 2.5 GHz band obtained in the Sprint transaction. “Therefore, any delay in C-Band use helps T-Mobile in its efforts to lock in 5G customers before Verizon and AT&T have improved their coverage in offering 5G,” wrote Levin.

Now that the aviation and aerospace industries want a longer delay, New Street Research U.S. Team Head Jonathan Chaplin wrote this week in a client report that much depends on what the White House does. The aviation and aerospace groups calling for the longer delay this week didn’t define a time-frame.

Chaplin believes more testing “could give all sides a graceful way to settle the dispute.” However he cautions that the aviation industry “has little (to no) incentive to settle.” He suggests next week’s FCC confirmation hearing may provide a clue as to how the administration will react.  

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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