Jun 17, 2022 - Technology

FAA and wireless carriers reach new deal on 5G

Illustration of an airplane flying into a storm cloud shapes as the wireless symbol
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it has reached a new agreement with AT&T and Verizon on deploying 5G signals around airports that should prevent a repeat of the stand-off over interference that threatened flights earlier this year.

Why it matters: Airline CEOs previously warned of catastrophic disruptions to flights, prompting AT&T and Verizon to agree in January to limit 5G deployments near airports until next month.

Catch up quick: Airlines feared that signals from the new 5G services could reduce the accuracy of radio altimeters, which help planes land and take off in inclement weather.

Driving the news: The two wireless carriers agreed to rolling deployments starting in July, allowing them to increase the strength of their 5G signals near airports each month for the next year.

  • In the meantime, the FAA said operators of regional aircraft with radio altimeters most susceptible to interference must retrofit them with radio frequency filters by the end of this year.
  • By July 2023, wireless carriers should be able to operate their networks in urban areas with minimal restrictions, while airlines should have completed the work on the altimeters, the FAA said.
  • “We believe we have identified a path that will continue to enable aviation and 5G C-band wireless to safely co-exist,” acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement.

Yes, but: Aviation industry group Airlines for America on Friday sent a letter to Nolen saying it's unclear whether 4,800 aircraft can be retrofitted by the July 2023 deadline.

  • "We appreciate the work the FAA has done to forestall a July 5th meltdown, but we underscore that the FAA must act responsibly both to its safety mission and accountability for the public good by assuring that unreasonable haste in this situation does not do more harm than good," Airlines for America President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio wrote in the letter.

What they're saying: AT&T and Verizon spent billions in a federal government auction to buy the airwaves licenses, known as C-band, to use for 5G services, and planned to begin using them months ago.

  • “Today’s announcement identifies a path forward that will enable Verizon to make full use of our C-Band spectrum for 5G around airports on an accelerated and defined schedule," Craig Silliman, Verizon EVP and Chief Administrative Officer, said in a statement.
  • "Though our FCC licenses allow us to fully deploy much-needed C-Band spectrum right now, we have chosen in good faith to implement these more tailored precautionary measures so that airlines have additional time to retrofit equipment," AT&T spokesperson Alex Byers said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include details from a letter sent by Airlines for America.

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