Jan 2, 2022 - Technology

Wireless providers push 5G forward over aviation objections

Pete Buttigieg scowls during a television interview in front of the White House

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The ongoing dispute between wireless carriers and the aviation industry heated up over the holidays, with AT&T and Verizon on Sunday refusing a request from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to delay their planned 5G deployments.

Why it matters: The Federal Aviation Administration has warned that potential interference from 5G signals, especially in bad weather, could cause flight cancellations or force planes to divert to different airports.

Instead of further postponing their 5G plans for a second time, the wireless providers offered to beef up protections around airports to address concerns about potential signal interference with aircraft equipment.

Catch up quick: Wireless carriers, including AT&T and Verizon, spent $80 billion in a federal auction to buy airwave licenses in the so-called C-band swath of spectrum, and planned to begin deployment Dec. 5.

  • But after the FAA and airlines raised concerns about the potential for 5G signals to interfere with radio altimeters that help planes land, the carriers agreed to delay deployment until Jan. 5.
  • A New Year's Eve missive from Buttigieg and FAA administrator Steve Dickson asked AT&T and Verizon for an additional two-week delay and a buffer zone around priority airports.

What's happening: The companies instead said they would not operate 5G base stations along runways for 6 months while the FAA studies the issue. Those restrictions resemble rules imposed in France.

What they're saying: "As you know, U.S. aircraft currently fly in and out of France every day with thousands of U.S. passengers and with the full approval of the FAA," AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg wrote in the letter.

  • "As a result, France provides a real-world example of an operating environment where 5G and aviation safety already co-exist," they wrote. "The laws of physics are the same in the United States and France."

Between the lines: France and the U.S. have different rules for 5G operations, but the companies say their proposal accounts for those differences.

The other side: An FAA spokesperson said Sunday the agency is reviewing the letter from the carriers, and "U.S. aviation safety standards will guide our next actions."

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