US delays 5G rollout over aviation safety concerns

The new tech has been delayed following concerns from the aviation industry around the C-Band 5G spectrum

AT&T and Verizon have agreed to delay the rollout of their 5G services in the US for two weeks following concerns raised by the aviation industry.

The rollout was due to take place on 5 January but Pete Buttigieg, secretary of Transportation, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) raised concerns around the safety of 5G C-Band in a letter sent on 31 December.

There are concerns that the C-Band 5G spectrum could impact aircraft electronics, like radio altitude meters, which could potentially disrupt flights. The US networks at first rejected the request to push back the rollout but agreed to mitigate services around US airports for six months as a temporary safeguard, similar to what has happened in some European operating environments.

On Monday, the operators agreed to the request and the rollout is now set to take place on 19 January. Over the next two weeks regulators, airlines, and wireless carriers will examine ways to minimise the potential impact of interference on flight operations.

“The FAA thanks AT&T and Verizon for agreeing to a voluntary delay and for their proposed mitigations,” the regulator said in a statement. “We look forward to using the additional time and space to reduce flight disruptions associated with this 5G deployment.”

A Verizon spokesperson told IT Pro: “We’ve agreed to a two-week delay which promises the certainty of bringing this nation our game-changing 5G network in January, delivered over America’s best and most reliable wireless network."

“At Secretary Buttigieg's request, we have voluntarily agreed to one additional two-week delay of our deployment of C-Band 5G services," a spokesperson from AT&T told IT Pro. "We also remain committed to the six-month protection zone mitigations we outlined in our letter. We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues.”

Research from the trade group Airlines for America highlights that if the FAA’s 5G rules had been in place in 2019, around 345,000 passenger flights and 5,400 cargo flights would have been delayed, diverted, or cancelled, affecting 32 million passengers.

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In November, the FAA warned operators to prepare for the potential failure of safety systems as wireless operators begin using more spectrum for 5G services in December. It said there could be adverse effects on aircraft radio altimeters from mobile broadband devices, underlining problems in the 3.7 to 3.98GHz band. 

The band, called the C-band spectrum, is where most commercial 5G activity will take place, according to the GSMA. Radio altimeters operate at the 4.2 to 4.4GHz spectrum, and the FAA said its technical standards don’t consider potential interference from adjacent bands. The regulator also warned that operators should be ready to deal with pilots who lose trust in aircraft safety systems.

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