One day after pushing back against another 11th-hour request from federal aviation authorities to delay the rollout of C-band over safety concerns, AT&T and Verizon have again agreed to hold off on activating the spectrum for 5G – this time for two more weeks.
It’s the latest development in a conflict that’s put the U.S. government, federal aviation officials and airline industry stakeholders at odds with the FCC and major wireless carriers, with mounting pressure on AT&T and Verizon who each spent billions to acquire and prepare C-band spectrum for 5G.
The new delay comes just days before C-band launches expected on January 5, which itself was later than originally planned and is now pushed until January 19.
AT&T on Monday night said that it reached an agreement with the Department of Transportation and released the following statement:
“At Secretary Buttigieg's request, we have voluntarily agreed to one additional two-week delay of our deployment of C-Band 5G services. We also remain committed to the six-month protection zone mitigations we outlined in our letter. We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues.”
Verizon in its statement indicated that the concession ensures C-band will be deployed this month rather than indefinite delays.
“We’ve agreed to a two-week delay which promises the certainty of bringing this nation our game-changing 5G network in January, delivered over America’s best and most reliable wireless network,” Verizon stated.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in a statement thanked the carriers for agreeing to the voluntary delay and for proposing additional mitigations.
“We look forward to using the additional time and space to reduce flight disruptions associated with this 5G deployment,” the FAA stated.
On New Year’s Eve Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson sent a letter to the carriers including requesting a two-week delay, saying absent a resolution it would need to take actions that would result in widespread air travel disruptions. On January 2, CEOs of AT&T and Verizon replied with a letter of their own, rebuffing the request and offering counter proposal to follow a model implemented in France which they said provides a real-world example of how aviation and 5G C-band services safely coexist. That model would adopt exclusion zones reduce C-band levels by at least 10 times on the runway and the last mile of takeoff and final approach.
The FAA on Monday noted that wireless companies offered to put a set of mitigations in place that are comparable to measures used in certain European operating environments.
“While U.S. standards and operating environments are unique, we believe this could substantially reduce the disruptions to air operations,” the agency noted. Those measures will be in place for six months around 50 airports identified as having the greatest impact on U.S. aviation, according to the FAA.
Verizon and AT&T already agreed to pushed back plans to activate C-band, originally planned for December 5, by one month. That happened in November after the FAA issued a warning about air safety concerns stemming from potential interference of 5G services in the C-band with airplane equipment such as radio altimeters. Both AT&T and Verizon also later agreed to lower power limits at certain locations around airports for six months as an additional step.
Different sides weigh in
The different parties have been working towards resolution but the ongoing issue had caused a stir in recent days, with different sides weighing in.
Ahead of AT&T and Verizon’s Monday night concession, airline industry group Aerospace Industries Association earlier in the day had called on the White House to step in.
“Time has run out and it’s imperative that the White House intervene today to delay the imminent rollout of C-band 5G signals. Starting Wednesday, the disruptions to our country’s aviation system are going to be incredibly challenging, especially at a time when the industry is currently experiencing COVID-related operational issues,” the group wrote.
The wireless industry has maintained that 5G C-band services can safely coexist with aviation, often pointing to deployments in nearly 40 other countries around the globe. C-band for 5G services in the U.S. operate in the 3.7-3.98 GHz range and the concerns surround interference with radio altimeters that operate in the 4.2 GHz-4.4 GHz range. The equipment helps determine aircraft distance above the ground and among other uses is involved for landing in inclement weather. C-band isn’t a new topic though and approving the spectrum for commercial use was a multi-year FCC process. In adopting a report an order in March 2020, the FCC implemented a 220-megahertz guardband which it said would fully protect aeronautical services but aviation stakeholders haven’t been satisfied.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr wrote a letter to Secretary Buttigieg on January 1 calling the two-week delay request “highly irregular” and “one that deviates from the clear statutory process specified by Congress for regulation the provision of wireless service.” He pointed out the guardband, noting that C-band service AT&T and Verizon first plan to activate is even farther away – operating in the 3.7-3.8 GHz range.
The prolonged last minute back and forth has ruffled AT&T and Verizon, which suggested the move is one by a struggling airline industry that has been slow to upgrade older radio altimeters while facing its own financial hardships.
In a December 31 letter outlining commitments, AT&T and Verizon regulatory execs called out language in filings by AIA and echoed by Airlines for America in a recent petition for stay New Year’s Eve that airline concerns also relate to “the economic vitality of the aviation industry.”
“That phrase lays bare AIA’s real agenda,” wrote AT&T’s Joan Marsh and Verizon’s William Johnson. “It wants to hold the C-band hostage until the wireless industry agrees to cover the costs of upgrading any obsolete altimeters that, in the view of some aviation interest, do an abnormally poor job of filtering signals in bands far removed from the 4.2-4.4 GHz aeronautical altimetry band.”
Meanwhile, Airlines for America’s petition outlined 35 airports where it asked for 5G service to be halted, citing consequences from C-band deployment such as the need to reroute or cancel thousands of airline flights, dislocate millions of passengers and crews and potential economic losses estimated at more than $1 billion.
Closer to a resolution
While AT&T and Verizon, which have been preparing to deploy C-band since the FCC completed an $80 billion auction in early 2021, pushed back against more delays as the FAA situation escalated over the holiday – analysts at New Street Research believe the sides appear to be coming closer to a resolution.
“The number of flights affected has been going down (while the flights affected by everything else have been going up) and the FAA is essentially conceding that with higher quality altimeters, C-Band transmissions will not create a threat to safety,” wrote New Street analyst Blair Levin in a Tuesday note to investors. “So, we think there are multiple ways to solve the problem and expect that to happen in a few weeks, rather than multiple months.”
New Street acknowledged there’s no guarantee the issues will be resolved, but said that if deployments are a matter of weeks away rather than months, the new delay shouldn’t impact AT&T and Verizon stocks.
“Further, we don’t see the compromises already made or likely to be made as affecting the revenues and margins of the carriers’ 5G services. We expect a week or so of quiet, with the parties potentially ramping up again as we approach a new deadline of approximately January 19th,” wrote Levin.