AT&T and Verizon delay 5G service at some airports
By Niraj Chokshi and David McCabe
Verizon and AT&T said earlier this week that they would delay the expansion of new 5G cellular service near some airports, a pause that President Joe Biden said would avert potentially devastating disruptions that airlines had been warning about for months.
The broader expansion of 5G — which provides much faster access to the internet than current wireless technology — was set for Wednesday after multiple delays.
Aviation regulators and airlines repeatedly raised concerns that the new technology would interfere with safety equipment used to determine a plane’s altitude. The telecommunications industry has countered that regulators and airlines have had years to prepare for 5G.
It was not immediately clear whether the changes that AT&T and Verizon announced midday were enough to prevent severe flight disruptions Wednesday. A few foreign carriers canceled flights to the United States, while Delta Air Lines said it was preparing for possible disruptions should bad weather trigger some flight restrictions still in place for the 5G rollout. Other major U.S. airlines and an industry trade group said late in the day that they were still trying to understand the details of the delay. Wireless companies and Biden did not say how long the pause would last.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees flight safety, said in early January that it had reached a deal with AT&T and Verizon that included delaying the start of the new 5G service by two weeks and adding safeguards around airports. But that agreement appeared to be insufficient when airline executives sent a letter to the administration Monday claiming that the start of the service could cause such huge problems that the “nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.” Biden echoed those warnings.
“This agreement will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations and our economic recovery,” Biden said in a statement Tuesday commending the delay by the wireless carriers. More than 90% of the planned 5G expansion will proceed as scheduled, and federal officials will continue to work with those carriers, airlines and aviation manufacturers to find a “permanent, workable solution,” he added.
AT&T and Verizon said they would not activate the new 5G service within 2 miles of some runways, in line with a request from airline officials. AT&T said the FAA would choose which specific runways required the measure.
The last-minute change, along with previous 11th-hour agreements, highlights poor planning and lack of coordination among the aviation and telecommunications industries and their regulators, the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission.
“It doesn’t just disrupt air travel. It makes us look ridiculous to the rest of the world,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a research and advocacy group that has received funding from AT&T and Verizon.
In their letter Monday to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the executives of 10 airlines said they feared chaos because of restrictions put in place by aviation regulators to avoid interference between the new wireless service and plane equipment. The airline group offered a solution in the letter: Allow 5G to be put in place nationwide starting Wednesday, except for within 2 miles of affected runways.
On a day like Sunday, the group said, more than 1,100 flights would have been canceled because of the FAA restrictions, affecting about 100,000 passengers.
“We have not yet seen the details of the agreements,” Nicholas Calio, the CEO of Airlines for America, an industry association, said in a statement Tuesday. “However, this pause provides the opportunity to ensure all stakeholders, consumers and the U.S. economy are served in the long run.”
The new 5G service, which is a big expansion of the limited current use of the technology by U.S. wireless companies, uses so-called C-band frequencies, which are close to the portion of airwaves used by radio altimeters, devices that determine the distance between planes and the ground. That measurement is particularly important to pilots when visibility is limited.
Several international airlines said Tuesday that they would cancel or suspend flights to the U.S. on Wednesday because of the start of 5G service. They included Air India, Emirates, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways.
The industry and the aviation regulators had raised concerns about 5G interference over the past several years. In November 2020, for example, the International Air Transport Association, a global trade group, warned that such interference could trigger automated systems to intervene in ways that would be dangerous and confusing to pilots. The system might, for example, force planes to pull up to avoid phantom objects, or could prevent planes from warning pilots of real obstacles.
Airlines and the FAA began escalating warnings in recent months, leading Verizon and AT&T to delay their limited 5G rollout from December to early January. At the start of this month, the FAA, which is part of Buttigieg’s department, reached an agreement for the delay to Wednesday, buying more time to prepare safety precautions.
The FAA said at the time that it would no longer ask for further delays after Verizon and AT&T agreed to that postponement, and Airlines for America said it would “continue to work with all stakeholders to help ensure that new 5G service can coexist with aviation safely.”
The telecommunications industry has pushed back against the concerns raised by the airlines and the FAA, noting that the start of 5G has been years in the making and that the service has already been introduced in Britain, France and other countries.
“In our opinion, the technical information that is being used to generate concern shows improbable worst-case scenarios,” GSMA, a global wireless industry group, said Monday. AT&T and Verizon also expressed frustration Tuesday with the FAA’s handling of the situation.
The FAA has noted, however, that there are technical differences in how 5G is being carried out in other countries. In the U.S., planes would be protected from 5G interference only in the last 20 seconds of flight, compared with 96 seconds in France, for example.
Last week, the FAA started issuing hundreds of notices to airlines with updated guidance on how to land planes equipped with different radio altimeters safely in low-visibility conditions where 5G service is of concern. On Sunday, the agency said it had cleared an estimated 45% of the U.S. commercial plane fleet to perform such landings safely, opening up runways at as many as 48 of the 88 airports most directly affected by potential 5G interference. The agency did not identify which airports had yet to be cleared.