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AT&T and Verizon agree to postpone 5G rollout at US airports

President Joe Biden thanked Verizon and AT&T for agreeing to the delay

Mobile operators AT&T and Verizon have agreed to postpone the rollout of 5G around a number of US airports following warnings of “major disruption”.

The deployment of the C-Band 5G spectrum, which forms the basis of Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network as well as AT&T’s 5G+ network, was set to be switched on throughout the US on 19 January. 

However, the mobile operators have now decided to temporarily exclude airports from the rollout, following protests from airline operators and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over fears that the C-band spectrum would negatively impact radio altitude metres used to ​​report an aircraft’s height above the ground. This could lead to not only disrupted flights but also worsen the US’ supply chain crisis, they warned.

AT&T said that it's “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”.

"We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers," the company told IT Pro.

In a statement, Verizon said that it has “voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports”.

“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,” the company added.

President Joe Biden thanked Verizon and AT&T for agreeing to the delay, adding that the decision “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90% of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled”.

“This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans,” he added.

Despite the decision, a number of airlines, including British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, and Lufthansa, gave either cancelled flights to the US or switched aircraft over concerns of radio interference caused by 5G.

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Aviation analyst Alex Macheras said that this is due to “a fresh notice from Boeing that 5G signals may interfere with key instruments such as the radio altimetre on the [Boeing] 777” – a popular aircraft model for long-haul flights.

Kester Mann, director of Consumer and Connectivity at CCS Insight, told IT Pro that the situation is causing some embarrassment for the US "which is being weighed down by bureaucracy as regulators in other regions such as Europe voice no such concerns".

"The developments are a frustration to AT&T and Verizon which spent tens of billions of dollars last year to acquire crucial C-band spectrum and are losing ground to T-Mobile in the race to deploy 5G networks," he said.

"Although an inconvenience, the carriers have little choice but to hold off. The implications of any accident caused as a direct result of interference to planes' navigation systems could have disastrous consequences not just for themselves, but the telecoms industry at large," he added.

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