C-band standoff won’t be ‘completely resolved’ by summer: Buttigieg

During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the C-band continues to be a top concern.

The C-band raised big concerns among lawmakers starting late last year and into January after Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials called it out as a potential source of interference with radio altimeters used in airplanes. The FCC disagreed with that assessment, but the whole thing ballooned into a pretty major crisis for airlines and wireless carriers.

The FCC auctioned the C-band airwaves after determining it was safe to use it for 5G, but the FAA and airlines challenged the agency’s decision at the 11th-or-so-hour when wireless carriers, namely Verizon and AT&T, were poised to launch 5G using C-band licenses they bought at auction. Ultimately, the carriers’ C-band plans were delayed and C-band gear near certain airports remained idle in order to satisfy the aviation concerns.

During Thursday’s hearing, Senator Susan Collins, (R-Maine), asked about the status of it.

“We know the agreement that was reached is going to expire this summer,” she said. “Do we anticipate there are going to be further disruptions? We’ve seen passenger travel go up and we know that we have supply chain problems and I’m very worried that we could be back in a situation for those approximately 5 percent of airports where 5G has not been turned on near them.”

Buttigieg said it continues to be a “top concern” and something that he’s personally very engaged in.

“We’re in a much better place than we were in December and January, and largely because we have much better dialog and collaboration, not just among regulators but among industries and have been directly engaging with the airlines, the aviation equipment manufacturers and with the telecom carriers to make sure that we’re on a better path,” he said.

The current voluntary agreement contemplates a delay or mitigation on the activation on some cell towers into the summer, “but we’re going to have more work to do to make sure that there is safe and economically beneficial co-existence with 5G C-band spectrum use and these radio altimeters,” he said.

“We are doing everything we can to pursue the technological solutions that I think will be the ultimate long-range fix for this, while in the meantime continuing to support the negotiated solutions, which I would note have really worked on a voluntary basis up to now and I think that is a credit to the collaborative spirit that we were able to reach across industries and players but has not been replaced by technological fix just yet and won’t be completely resolved by this summer,” he said.

That’s of concern, Collins noted.

AT&T, Verizon ‘encouraged’ by progress

Even though Buttigieg said it won’t be resolved by this summer, both AT&T and Verizon sound rather upbeat about their prospects in resolving the issues.

“We continue to work closely and collaboratively with the FAA, and we are encouraged by the progress made thus far. We expect that progress to continue,” said Alex Byers, director of Corporate Communications at AT&T.

Generally, Verizon is “very pleased” with the pace at which its team has been able to deploy 5G using the C-band spectrum, according to a spokesperson. At 3.7 GHz, the C-band is considered prime mid-band spectrum for 5G.

“Verizon is very encouraged by the collaboration and pace in which the FAA, the FCC, and the airline and communications industries have addressed and cleared issues with 5G networks around many airports,” the carrier said in a statement provided to Fierce on Thursday. “We’re highly confident that the small and declining number of outstanding questions will be resolved sooner than later, without a significant impact to airline operations or the availability of 5G at airports.” 

While both AT&T and Verizon spent hefty sums on C-band licenses, Verizon paid nearly twice as much for a lot more of it. As of last week, it had about 113 million PoPs covered across 1,700 cities, putting it significantly ahead of its original deployment plans.

It also secured early access to the next phase of C-band spectrum, which previously was supposed to be cleared in December 2023. Now it expects to deploy its 5G Ultra Wideband service this year on at least 60 MHz of spectrum and up to 100 MHz of spectrum to at least 30 additional major market areas, including population centers of Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Denver, said Verizon spokeswoman Karen Schulz. 

Verizon remains on track to reach about 175 million PoPs by year end and at least 250 million PoPs by the end of 2024. It’s also aggressively adding fixed wireless access (FWA) coverage throughout 2022 and beyond, reaching at least 50 million households and 14 million businesses by the end of 2025, she said.

It expects 5G phone penetration will be over 60% by 2023 and greater than 80% by 2025, “so a very, very fast adoption rate,” she said.