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Verizon, AT&T will limit 5G around airports as airlines warn of 'catastrophic' disruption

Verizon will limit service around some airports in an apparent concession to carriers' concerns.
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Verizon and AT&T will temporarily limit 5G service around some airports, the telecommunication giants said Tuesday, in the wake of airlines' warnings about "catastrophic" disruption from this week's rollout.

While Verizon is still set for a 5G launch Wednesday, which the company said will "enable more than 90 million Americans to experience the transformative speed," it also acknowledged that some crucial "operational" issues have yet to be resolved.

"The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 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," Verizon said Tuesday afternoon in a statement announcing a temporary limit in service around some airports.

The brief statement did not outline which areas or airports would be limited.

AT&T said Tuesday that it had agreed “to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment.”

“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 said in an emailed statement. “We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers.”

The telecommunications powers and U.S. airlines are waging a high-stakes battle, with one side claiming it is keeping up with modern technological demands and the other insisting it is protecting the traveling public.

“Next-generation 5G technologies will be the backbone of our economic future," Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement Tuesday. "Today’s agreement makes it possible to bring this technology to millions more consumers and businesses throughout the country starting tomorrow using the C-band. This is welcome news because we know that deployment can safely co-exist with aviation technologies in the United States, just as it does in other countries around the world. The FAA has a process in place to assess altimeter performance in the 5G environment and resolve any remaining concerns. It is essential that the FAA now complete this process with both care and speed.”

In a letter to U.S. transportation and economic officials, the CEOs of major carriers said Monday that the launch could ground flights and strand "tens of thousands of Americans" overseas.

As AT&T and Verizon roll out the new C-Band 5G service Wednesday, airlines continue to contend with the fallout from widespread flight cancellations fueled by the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus and a series of winter storms that caused travel chaos across the U.S.

The airlines warned that the 5G signals risked interfering with safety equipment pilots rely on to take off and land in inclement weather.

“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” they said in the letter, which was signed by the chief executives of American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue, along with leaders of UPS and FedEx.

“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” the letter said.

Without clearance, it added, “to be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

The letter was addressed to National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson and Rosenworcel.

Fifth-generation wireless technology, widely known as 5G, promises to deliver ultrafast internet speeds, extra bandwidth and increased connectivity. Telecommunications companies around the world are racing to roll out the service.

The concern is that the airwave spectrum used by the 5G technology could clash with the signals used by radio altimeters, measuring instruments that help pilots determine the distance from the ground to the bottom of an aircraft in low-visibility operations.

Both companies have agreed to maintain buffer zones around at least 50 airports to reduce the possibility of interference. And the rollout Wednesday has already been delayed by two weeks at the request of the Transportation Department in response to concerns from aviation leaders.

AT&T and Verizon initially rejected the government’s request in early January, but they reversed course and agreed to the two-week delay.

At the time, Buttigieg said talks among the FAA, major airlines and wireless carriers were “healthy.”

Airline leaders said they wanted the service to be rolled out "everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles of airport runways at affected airports."

“This will allow 5G to be deployed while avoiding harmful impacts on the aviation industry, traveling public, supply chain, vaccine distribution, our workforce and broader economy," they said, suggesting that the rollout could also affect the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

As the 5G service goes live Wednesday, the FAA has said it will take the precaution of prohibiting pilots from using altimeters during landing at more than 80 airports near 5G sites. Major airports in Dallas, New York, Chicago and Seattle are among those expected to be affected.

The FAA said it would “continue to ensure that the traveling public is safe as wireless companies deploy 5G.”

“The FAA continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try to limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations,” it added in a statement.

It estimated Sunday that it had cleared 45 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet to "perform low-visibility landings at many of the airports where 5G C-band will be deployed" as of Wednesday.

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United Airlines said in a statement that the government's rollout plan would "have a devastating impact on aviation." It said the resulting chaos could negatively affect as many as 1.25 million United passengers.

It said airlines wanted the U.S. government to design policies to ensure that 5G technology can be deployed safely.

"We won’t compromise on safety — full stop. But, governments in other countries have successfully designed policies to ensure the safe deployment of 5G technology and we’re simply asking the U.S. government to do the same," the airline said.

"We implore the Biden administration to act quickly and apply the same common-sense solutions here that have clearly worked so well around the world," it said.

American Airlines Chief Operating Officer David Seymour echoed similar fears and told employees Tuesday to brace for "major operational disruptions" due to the "unprecedented challenge" of the 5G rollout.

"We anticipate American, along with all U.S. airlines and many foreign carriers providing service to U.S. destinations, will experience major operational disruptions as this new 5G technology operates on frequencies adjacent to the ones used by the radio altimeters on aircraft," Seymour wrote to employees.

"Until a long-term technical solution is developed and implemented and as long as 5G is deployed, we anticipate we'll experience delays, diversions and cancellations that are well beyond our control," he said.