Wireless carriers postpone planned Dec. 5 launch of new spectrum to address concerns about potential interference with cockpit safety systems
AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. agreed to delay their planned Dec. 5 rollout of a new 5G frequency band so they can work with the Federal Aviation Administration to address concerns about potential interference with key cockpit safety systems.
The cellphone carriers said Thursday they would delay their planned 5G deployments until Jan. 5, responding to the aviation regulator’s warnings while disputing claims that the proposed cellular signals would represent a danger.
The FAA, a unit of the U.S. Transportation Department, had been planning to issue official mandates as soon as this week that would limit pilots’ use of certain automated cockpit systems, such as those that help planes land in poor weather, according to government and industry officials familiar with the planned orders. Those limits would aim to avoid potential interference from wireless towers on the ground transmitting new 5G signals.
Such limits for pilots could disrupt passenger and cargo flights in the 46 metropolitan areas where the towers are located, aviation industry officials have said.
Telecom industry officials have disputed the need for more safeguards, saying that available evidence doesn’t show that the proposed 5G signals will interfere with flight equipment. Cellphone carriers in some other countries already use the wireless frequencies in question.
The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees telecom regulations, issued a statement with the FAA later Thursday confirming the voluntary pause. “Aviation safety and technology leadership are national priorities, and with today’s announcement these companies have demonstrated their commitment to both,” the federal agencies said, naming both carriers. The agencies said they would continue working closely together to ensure the U.S. keeps pace with the rest of the world regarding the latest communications technologies, without undue delay.
Verizon, the country’s largest wireless company by subscribers, said it postponed its rollout “in the spirit of good faith” but remained on track to bring 5G services over the frequency range in question, known as C-band, to 100 million Americans in early 2022.
“We appreciate the FCC’s work in its discussions with the FAA and others to ensure a data-driven analysis that will again demonstrate that 5G operations in this band pose no risk to flight safety,” a Verizon spokesman said in a statement.
AT&T said it would continue to work with the FCC and the FAA to understand the FAA’s concerns. “It is critical that these discussions be informed by the science and the data,” AT&T said. “That is the only path to enabling experts and engineers to assess whether any legitimate coexistence issues exist.”
Shares of Verizon fell 2.1% and AT&T declined 1.5% Thursday while broader U.S. stock indexes were mixed.
C-band spectrum covers a swath of radio frequencies measured between 3.7 and 4.2 gigahertz. The spectrum is considered highly suitable for 5G networks and already serves cellphones in other countries. The technology, short for fifth-generation wireless, offers internet speeds much faster than today’s 4G service.
AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars to buy the licenses for the 5G-friendly airwaves, with billions more reserved to compensate the band’s previous satellite users and install new equipment. The two carriers and rival T-Mobile US Inc. also won licenses for C-band spectrum that would be activated in late 2023. Only a portion of the band was scheduled for cellular use in December.
The gradual pace of 5G infrastructure upgrades means AT&T and Verizon’s one-month delay isn’t likely to significantly alter their bottom lines, according to industry executives. But a longer pause could pressure the carriers. Verizon, which recently said more than a quarter of its users had upgraded to a 5G-capable smartphone, is counting on C-band frequencies to address the mounting demands from its customers’ appetite for app downloads, games and streaming video.
“A month doesn’t make that much of a difference,” said Harold Feld, a telecom industry specialist at Public Knowledge, a Washington-based tech advocacy group. “What makes a difference is when it starts to look indefinite. Then you get to a situation where a whole investment cycle gets blown up.”
Aviation industry groups have been warning federal officials about what they believe are potential safety implications from the new 5G service and potential economic fallout, according to people familiar with the matter.
A presentation by a coalition of aviation groups to White House officials was expected this week to warn that the potential FAA restrictions could result in airports or even regions being shut down as passengers and shippers experience flight cancellations, delays and diversions, according to a draft of the presentation seen by The Wall Street Journal.
The FAA had been expected to issue official mandates, known as airworthiness directives, that would restrict flights in U.S. airspace that require gauges known as radio altimeters that measure the distance between aircraft and the ground, according to a recent draft of a directive viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The FAA and FCC have been tussling over the issue for months, though the plan to use the spectrum for cellular networks goes back several years. The FAA has sought specific data about 5G towers’ locations, power and angles to determine whether they could interfere with planes’ glide paths on final approach.
“At this time, the FAA has no way of determining which airports or areas within the U.S. have or will have 5G base stations or other devices that could provide interference with airplane systems,” according to the FAA directive draft. The draft added that such interference “could lead to loss of continued safe flight and landing.”
Earlier this week the FAA issued a special bulletin to pilots, airlines and aerospace manufacturers warning of the potential for 5G interference.
The FCC set its rules for use of the spectrum in early 2020 after reviewing the potential impact on aviation, creating a “guard band” as a buffer between the two uses. Some airplane equipment operates in nearby frequencies, between 4.2 and 4.4 GHz.
The FCC reviewed various industry studies about the safety risks and said in its March 2020 order that “well-designed equipment should not ordinarily receive any significant interference (let alone harmful interference).” The commission later issued new licenses that allowed wireless companies to start operating in parts of the C-band on Dec. 5 of this year, in addition to other frequencies already in use for 5G.