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5G rollout expected to continue after two-week delay

Two wireless carriers were set to expand their new 5G service Jan. 5, but airlines pushed back and requested government intervention.
Image: 5G cell tower
A contract crew for Verizon works on a cell tower to update it to handle the new 5G network in Orem, Utah, on Dec. 10, 2019.George Frey / AFP via Getty Images file

AT&T and Verizon are set to expand their rollout of 5G wireless service Jan. 19 following the completion of a two-week delay that was requested by the Department of Transportation.

The carriers were ready to continue with the expansion of their 5G service Jan. 5, but airlines requested government intervention, citing the service’s potential to interfere with radio altimeters, the equipment that pilots use to land planes in poor weather. The concern was that the airwave spectrum used by this new 5G service, known as the C-band, could clash with the signals used by radio altimeters. 

The two carriers initially rejected the government’s request in early January and were planning to move forward, but they reversed course and announced the two-week delay. Both carriers have also promised to temporarily reduce the strength of their networks around airports to allow regulators to study potential aviation interference more closely.

Fifth-generation wireless technology, generally referred to as 5G, promises ultra-fast internet speeds and extra bandwidth, features that technologists say could usher in a new era of internet-connected tech.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday that ongoing talks between the Federal Aviation Administration, the major airlines and wireless carriers were “healthy,” adding that federal officials are doing “everything we can to make the most out of every single day” granted by the temporary pause.

“I can tell you there’s a lot of technical exchange going on every day, every hour to try to get the information together to support the analysis, to support the engineering, to support that safety work so that that can happen,” Buttigieg said in an interview.

Prior to the agreed-upon delay, Buttigieg and the head of the FAA reached out to the wireless carriers and said there would be travel disruptions as flights would be canceled or diverted to reduce potential safety risks.

Buttigieg said the FAA does not plan to ask for another delay and has been taking “a conservative approach” citing a “zero tolerable level of major flight hazard, when you talk about certifying any piece of equipment.”

A source directly familiar with the talks, who was not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed Buttigieg’s description and the status of the discussion, adding that the major airlines expect the 5G rollout to come in waves in certain markets. 

The industry group that represents the wireless industry, CTIA, also confirmed that Verizon and AT&T are gearing up to switch on 5G transmitters on Jan. 19.

“As part of this agreement, wireless providers have agreed to implement a temporary set of measures that collectively represent the most stringent protection for air traffic anywhere in the world,” CTIA Chief Communications Officer Nick Ludlum said in an emailed statement.

In recent days, the FAA released a list of 50 airports — including John F. Kennedy International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport — that will implement a temporary 5G buffer zone for six months.

“We are grateful to the FAA for their work to implement a range of mitigations for impacted airports to help reduce inevitable flight delays, diversions and cancellations,” Airlines for America, the trade association that represents the major commercial and cargo airlines, said in an emailed statement.