An airline group has predicted that flight impacts will be ‘incalculable’
AT&T and Verizon both confirmed this morning that they have gone ahead with their planned activation of the use of C-Band spectrum, amid dire warnings from the an aviation industry group earlier this week and last-minute concessions on the carriers’ part that will further constrain C-Band operations near airports.
The last few days up to the activation have been uncertain ones. The Federal Aviation Administration last week issued more than 1,400 warnings to pilots last week about the possibility that on-board aviation systems could be disrupted when C-Band operations began. But by Monday of this week, the federal agency had cleared for use two radar altimeters used in some Boeing and Airbus jets. According to the agency, those efforts would enable 45% of U.S. aircrafts to make low-visibility landings.
Monday also saw the emergence of a letter to multiple federal agencies from aviation industry group Airlines for America that despite the coordination between federal agencies and the two carriers, the U.S. faced “major disruption of the traveling and shipping public” and asked for further limitations on C-Band operations within about two miles of the runways at the airports on the FAA’s list.
“Every one of the passenger and cargo carriers will be struggling to get people,
shipments, planes and crews where they need to be,” said the letter, which was signed by the CEOs of airlines including United, Delta, American, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines, as well as the shipping airlines of UPS and FedEx. “To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”
Yesterday, with the clock to turn-up ticking down, both carriers agreed to further limit C-Band operations around airports.
AT&T told RCR Wireless News in an emailed statement on Tuesday that “At our sole discretion, we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways.”
“Americans have been clamoring for 5G and … we will deliver it,” Verizon spokesman Rich Young said on Tuesday. “As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports. The Federal Aviation Administration and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries.”
Despite Airlines for America’s prediction, however, it’s unclear that C-Band deployment is actually having an impact on flight operations, which have been disrupted across the U.S. this week due to weather conditions. According to FlightAware, which tracks cancellations and delays in the U.S. and around the world, by 11 a.m. ET Wednesday there were fewer than 700 flights in the U.S. that were delayed or cancelled, compared to more than 2,200 in the course of the full day on Tuesday.
Both AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars on C-Band spectrum to bolster their midband spectrum holdings, and spent much of 2021 building out infrastructure in preparation for operations to begin as quickly as possible when the spectrum became available in December. However, those plans were complicated by the protests from the aviation industry.
In December, AT&T and Verizon agreed to pause their C-Band plans until early January following warnings issued by the FAA that the 5G spectrum could interfere with aviation safety systems. More recently, when the FAA Chief Steve Dickson and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg asked Verizon and AT&T to delay their C-Band roll out for an additional two weeks, the carriers first rejected the new request. The pair changed their tune the following day, however, ultimately agreeing to the two-week delay that put C-Band activation at January 19 instead of January 5.
As part of an agreement that was worked out, which gave the two carriers assurance that they would be able to light up C-Band towers this month, the FAA came up with a list of 50 airports around the country where 5G buffers will be in place — meaning that the sites will operate at lower power levels in order to head off potential interference with aviation systems.
President Joe Biden issued a statement yesterday thanking AT&T and Verizon for agreeing to delay 5G deployment around some airports and continuing to work with the Department of Transportation on “safe 5G deployment at this limited set of locations.
He said that the carriers’ agreement on C-Band limitations “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled. … Expanding 5G and promoting competition in internet service are critical priorities of mine, and [C-Band activation on Wednesday] will be a massive step in the right direction. My team has been engaging non-stop with the wireless carriers, airlines, and aviation equipment manufacturers to chart a path forward for 5G deployment and aviation to safely co-exist – and, at my direction, they will continue to do so until we close the remaining gap and reach a permanent, workable solution around these key airports.”
While the Biden adminstration’s handling of the situation has been criticized, so has the fact that the airlines’ objections interfered at the last minute with deployment of spectrum that had been in various federal administrative proceedings over the preceding years.
Joe Kane, director of broadband and spectrum policy, for the public policy think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said in a statement on the airlines’ letter that “Effective spectrum policy requires everyone to take responsibility for the functioning of their wireless systems and work cooperatively to ensure harmful interference does not endanger lives or property.” He said that it was “disappointing” that airlines were yet again seeking a postponement “despite having had almost two years to ensure their altimeters could operate safely under the rules set under the guidance of capable FCC engineers.
“While not everyone gets their preferred outcome in administrative proceedings, it is important for all players to follow the established advisory process to resolve interference disputes. Attempting an end-run around the established federal process for spectrum allocation is bad for wireless consumers and airline passengers alike,” Kane said.