Carriers Poised to Launch 5G on C-Band Today, Skipping Some Towers

UPDATE AT&T and Verizon modified their plans to turn on 5G transmissions using their C-band licenses today. That’s in response to the last-minute plea on Monday from representatives of airlines and cargo shippers asking for a third pause.

The carriers on Tuesday agreed to temporarily defer turning on some wireless towers near key airports to avert a significant disruption to U.S. flights, reported Reuters. Details of the latest agreement were not disclosed, but airlines in recent days had proposed temporarily not deploying just under 10 percent of towers, or about 500, sources told Reuters. Nearly all but a handful of the impacted sites are Verizon towers.

Reuters characterized Verizon’s 5G on C-band rollout plan as more aggressive than AT&T’s. It’s significantly impacted by the Biden administration request to delay using some towers near airport runways, according to the account.

President Joe Biden hailed the agreement, saying it “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled.”

The carriers and the administration have agreed to work together to quickly address the issues and create a process to allow the remaining towers to be deployed.   g

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel praised the latest agreement between the carriers, regulators and the aviation industry. Calling 5G the backbone of the country’s economic future, she said Tuesday’s deal, “makes it possible to bring this technology to millions more consumers and businesses throughout the country starting Wednesday using the C-band.”

Rosenworcel called this “welcome news because we know that deployment can safely co-exist with aviation technologies in the United States, just as it does in other countries around the world. The FAA has a process in place to assess altimeter performance in the 5G environment and resolve any remaining concerns. It is essential that the FAA now complete this process with both care and speed.”

AT&T told Reuters, which tweeted: “At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment. We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it to do so in a timely manner. We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers.” 

Verizon said in a statement on its website yesterday it would launch its 5G Ultra Wideband network today. 5G, according to the carrier, “will enable more than 90 million Americans to experience the transformative speed, reliability and power of this game-changing network on the go or in their homes or businesses. Americans have been clamoring for 5G and [today] we will deliver it.”  

Verizon explained that it voluntarily decided to limit its 5G network around airports. “The 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.”

Both carriers twice delayed the launch of 5G on C-band in response to declarations from the FAA, airlines and other aviation-related groups that the transmissions could potentially interfere with aircraft radio altimeters.

U.S. airlines and cargo carriers on Monday warned that the new 5G wireless service set to deploy today could ground flights, Inside Towers reported. In a letter to administration officials, executives of major carriers wrote that C-band 5G causes disruptions to airplanes’ instruments that could make “huge swaths” of the U.S. fleet unusable. 

They sought “immediate intervention” from the federal government. The executives urged U.S. officials to prevent 5G from being implemented within two miles of affected airports until the FAA figures out a way for affected airplanes to fly safely or risk a “catastrophic disruption” to passenger flights and the global supply chain. They said “Immediate intervention” is needed in a letter to the White House, the Department of Transportation, the FAA and FCC.

On Tuesday, the FAA repeated a statement by U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on its website: “We recognize the economic importance of expanding 5G, and we appreciate the wireless companies working with us to protect the flying public and the country’s supply chain. The complex U.S. airspace leads the world in safety because of our high standards for aviation, and we will maintain this commitment as wireless companies deploy 5G.” 

CTIA tweeted facts about 5G and air safety after the latest agreement, saying 40 countries safely use C-band spectrum for 5G and there’ve been 17 years of study by international agencies. The U.S. government safely operates radar systems near the C-band at power levels 10,000x higher than 5G, according to the trade association. 

The Wireless Infrastructure Association re-tweeted an opinion piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by David Von Drehle, which read: “January 19 should not have become a crisis. The fact that the date became tangled in controversy is a flashing warning beacon: The FAA needs to improve its performance.”

Joe Kane, the director of broadband and spectrum policy for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a science and technology policy think tank, stated late Monday: “Effective spectrum policy requires everyone to take responsibility for the functioning of their wireless systems and work cooperatively to ensure harmful interference does not endanger lives or property.” He called it “disappointing” that airlines sought to postpone 5G deployment for a third time, “despite having had almost two years to ensure their altimeters could operate safely under the rules set under the guidance of capable FCC engineers.”

Kane continued: “While not everyone gets their preferred outcome in administrative proceedings, it is important for all players to follow the established advisory process to resolve interference disputes. Attempting an end-run around the established federal process for spectrum allocation is bad for wireless consumers and airline passengers alike.”

Major foreign carriers including Air India and Japan’s biggest airline, ANA Holdings, said they had canceled some U.S.-bound flights because of possible 5G interference yesterday. Neither carrier would comment to Reuters.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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