Explainer: why are AT&T and Verizon delaying 5G near US airports?

Move follows letter from airline executives concerned about interference with plane instruments

Last modified on Tue 18 Jan 2022 16.18 EST

The US phone carriers AT&T and Verizon agreed on Tuesday to temporarily defer turning on some wireless towers near key airport runways to mitigate a looming aviation crisis caused by new 5G technology.

Both AT&T and Verizon will launch new C-Band 5G wireless service on Wednesday but agreed to delay some deployment near airports that had threatened to result in numerous flight cancellations.

The concession came after major airline executives wrote the Biden administration on Monday asking it to intervene in AT&T and Verizon’s planned rollout of their 5G technology on Wednesday, warning of potential “catastrophic” effects if it were to go ahead.

“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded. This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays,” the CEOs said.

The airline industry has warned that the new network, which would allow consumers much faster internet access, could interfere with sensitive airplane instruments such as altimeters and significantly hamper low-visibility operations. Airlines asked on Sunday “that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles (3.2km) of airport runways” at some key airports.

AT&T and Verizon say their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics and that the technology is being safely used in many other countries. Both companies confirmed to the Guardian they were voluntarily limiting deployment near certain airports.

“We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner,” an AT&T spokesperson told the Guardian. “We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers.”

Here’s what you need to know about the controversy:

What is 5G?

5G is the newest generation of cellular network, following 4G, which was introduced in late 2009 and is used on most US cellphones today. Nearly every 10 years since 1980, a new-generation network has arrived, offering faster speeds and expanded capabilities.

At the simplest level, 1G allowed for phone calls, 2G brought messaging, and 3G provided internet access. Today, on 4G, users can download apps, stream video and more, with relative ease and speed.

The fifth generation is expected to offer new levels of speed – making it possible, for example, to download a movie to one’s phone in seconds – and allow more devices to be connected to a network at once. The latter is increasingly important in our crowded cellular landscape. (Ever been at a concert or stadium and unable to send messages?)

“Those types of data rates could enable virtual reality applications or autonomous driving cars,” Harish Krishnaswamy, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, told Live Science.

Why is the US airline industry concerned about 5G?

To execute the upgrade, cellular networks plan to move operations on to a new band of radio frequencies called the C-Band. Last year, Verizon and AT&T spent a combined $67bn acquiring the C-Band spectrum licenses needed to upgrade their networks to 5G, according to Forbes.

But some aircraft regulators worry that planes’ radio altimeters, which measure how far above ground a plane is to help pilots land their crafts in low-visibility situations and also operate on C-Band frequencies, could be disturbed by 5G.

Can 5G and the aviation industry coexist?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and telecom carriers all agree that 5G and airline travel can exist together. In fact, they already do in nearly 40 countries.

The telecom companies have pointed out that there have not been any accidents in other countries where 5G is operational and American airlines regularly fly to those countries.

The FAA, too, has said that “5G and aviation have safely coexisted in other countries”. That’s because in those regions, “power levels have been reduced around airports and the industries have worked together prior to deployment”, the agency said in a 3 January statement.

So what’s the problem in the US?

The discussions over how the transition should take place in the US have been brewing for years and intensified in recent months.

Verizon and AT&T had initially planned to launch 5G in December but delayed the rollout until the beginning of January amid concerns from the aviation industry.

On 3 January, the companies agreed to postpone the rollout another two weeks, until 19 January, to allow for further coordination.

Both telecom companies proposed several measures to mitigate the possible impact of the switch to 5G, including reducing the strength of their 5G around airports and helipads, and operating 5G service at lower power levels nationwide for the first six months.

But by 17 January, the companies and the aviation industry still didn’t appear to be on the same page. The CEOs of 10 passenger and cargo airlines including American, Delta, United and Southwest warned that 5G would be more disruptive than they originally thought because dozens of large airports that were to have buffer zones to prevent interference with aircraft would still be subject to flight restrictions announced last week by the FAA. The airline CEOs asked that 5G be barred within two miles of runways.

Why wasn’t this conflict resolved before?

The airline industry and the FAA say that they have tried to raise alarm about potential interference from 5G C-Band but the FCC has ignored them.

The telecoms, the FCC and their supporters argue that the aviation industry has known about C-Band technology for several years but did nothing to prepare – airlines chose not to upgrade altimeters that might be subject to interference, and the FAA failed to begin surveying equipment on planes until the last few weeks.

Reuters contributed to this report

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