Earlier this week, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest mobile network operators in the US, relented to requests from the aviation industry and the Biden administration to delay the deployment of 5G services on the ground that it may disrupt flight operations.
The decision was a culmination of a long period of disagreements between the aviation industry and mobile networks that ended in a compromise for the latter after US government intervention. The point of contention: airlines claim 5G interferes with flight signals.
Last month, United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby called on AT&T and Verizon to delay their plans to use the C-Band spectrum for 5G wireless services due to be deployed on 5 January, telling reporters that if they didn’t agree, “it would be a catastrophic failure of government”.
Requests from the aviation industry led to US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration head Steve Dickson sending a letter to the two mobile networks requesting them to reconsider their decision and delay deployment for two weeks.
After initially refusing to budge on the grounds that the aviation industry had two years to prepare for the deployment, AT&T and Verizon agreed to go ahead with the short two-week delay on Monday (3 January). The deployment will now go ahead on 19 January.
“We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues,” AT&T said in a statement seen by Reuters.
Can 5G and airlines co-exist?
The short answer is yes, but there’s a catch. 5G mobile networks using C-Band spectrum and airline travel can indeed co-exist – and they already do in nearly 40 countries, where US airlines regularly travel. Both the FAA and the telecom industry agree on this.
In a statement on 3 January, the FAA admitted that the two industries have coexisted in other countries because in those regions the power levels have been reduced around airports and there has been ample cross-industry collaboration prior to deployment. “For years, we have been working to find a solution in the United States,” it said.
Because this had not been done in the US, the FAA asked AT&T and Verizon for the additional two-week period to prepare for potential flight disruptions caused by any interference that may arise from the 5G deployment using frequencies in the C-Band spectrum.
“These frequencies can be close to those used by radar altimeters, an important piece of safety equipment in aircraft. To make sure that this does not lead to hazardous interference, the FAA requires that radar altimeters are accurate and reliable,” the FAA wrote in a statement.
AT&T and Verizon have agreed to not operate 5G base stations along runways for 6 months while the FAA takes time to further investigate its impact, which, according to Axios, resemble restrictions imposed in France. Biden called the delay decision “a significant step in the right direction”.
According to Reuters, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said following the concerns raised in the US that “no risk of unsafe interference has been identified in Europe”. South Korea, too, has reported no interference with radio waves since the deployment of 5G in 2019.
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