Aviation coalition wants to avoid another ‘eleventh hour’ haggling over C-band

A group of airline industry representatives on Tuesday sent a letter to the White House asking for more time to retrofit radio altimeters to ensure the safety of flights – but it’s pushing for action now rather than waiting “until the eleventh hour,” like what happened last year.

A lot of progress was made between the telecom industry, specifically Verizon and AT&T, and the aviation industry over the past year when it comes to negotiations. However, “significant risks” remain unresolved with seven months away from the next big deadline, according to the letter, which was reported on earlier by Reuters.  

“We believe that by finding accommodations now, we can prevent another last-minute herculean intervention by the Administration and major disruption to our air transport system,” the letter says.

Signatories include the Air Line Pilots Association International, Aircraft Carriers and Pilots Association, Airlines for America, Boeing, the Helicopter Association International and more. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel also was sent a copy of the letter.

Signs of stalemate 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was sounding the alarm around this time last year about potential interference to airplane safety systems from upcoming 5G deployments in C-band frequencies. Matters got really cantankerous around the busy holiday travel season, with AT&T and Verizon ending up delaying their C-band deployments and ultimately agreeing to modifications near airports.

The letter sent to the Administration this week acknowledges that AT&T and Verizon have implemented various mitigations, such as taking a phased approach to maintain lower power levels near airports and tilting antennas downward. This is happening while the aviation community is retrofitting equipment to make sure radio altimeters are not compromised.

“Inter-agency government progress appears to be at a stalemate, while stakeholders are doing their part to address these issues,” the letter states. “Aviation stakeholders, the FAA and AT&T and Verizon have spent much of the last year trying to understand and implement what is required to continue safely operating aircraft in a 5G environment.”

However, due to global supply chain issues, lack of a certified solution from one key radio altimeter and the FAA only recently identifying the criteria for radio altimeters that would not need to be changed, it’s looking like air carriers will not be able to fully meet either the December 2022 deadlines for smaller regional aircraft and many large transports nor the July 2023 retrofit deadline, according to the letter.

“Our aviation coalition strongly believes that instead of once again waiting until the eleventh hour, now is the time for the leadership of federal agencies and the White House to implement a solution that allows 5G to move forward and avoid further fight delays and cancelations,” they told the Administration.

It also notes that since January 2022, the FAA has documented over 100 FAA incidents of potential 5G interference, the majority of which were found to have a direct radio altimeter impact resulting in safety alerts by systems such as the Terrain Avoidance Warning System.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. government agencies do not appear to be on the same page with respect to these safety issues. As a result, aviation stakeholders are caught in the middle and ultimately passengers and shippers will be the ones who will bear the brunt of any operational disruption caused if this issue is not resolved,” the letter states.

Last month, Reuters reported that Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen was seeking mandates that would apply to 19 other smaller telecom companies and spectrum holders.

While Verizon and AT&T bought the largest number of licenses in the C-band auction and were first in line for widescale deployments, other carriers also bought C-band licenses for spectrum to be made available in 2023. That includes the likes of T-Mobile and UScellular, as well as smaller regional operators like C Spire and Carolina West Wireless.