US Operators Delay 5G Rollout, Amid Aviation Concerns

Two of the leading mobile operators in the United States have agreed to a government request to delay the rollout of 5G services in America.

Both AT&T and Verizon Communications had been set to deploy C-Band spectrum 5G wireless service on Wednesday 5 January, after they won in an $80 billion government auction.

AT&T and Verizon had in November already delayed the commercial launch of C-band wireless service by a month until 5 January, and had adopted precautionary measures to limit interference.

No additional delays

But the US government at the weekend then sought a further delay.

Both operators had initially refused the government request for an additional delay, but then at the last minute agreed to delay the launch until 19 January.

The US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson made the delay request over concerns about aviation safety.

Reuters however reported that both officials promised both AT&T and Verizon via a letter that the government will not seek any further delays in deployment of 5G wireless service beyond 19 January absent any “unforeseen aviation safety issues.”

The letter said unless “unforeseen aviation safety issues” arise the US agencies “will not seek or demand any further delays of C-Band deployment, in whole or in part, including a delay of return to routine operations.”

An industry official told Reuters the deal gives the operators assurances they will be able to begin deployment this month.

AT&T and Verizon also agreed on Sunday to adopt exclusion zones for six months around some airports, in a move to mirror safeguards adopted by France.

The letter reportedly said that by Friday regulators will provide the carriers “with a list of no more than 50 priority airports that they would propose to be subject to the C-Band exclusion zones” that AT&T and Verizon had proposed Sunday, Reuters reported.

Aviation concerns

The delay stems from what wireless experts will call a scaremongering campaign from the aviation industry.

At the centre of their argument, is that 5G signals in the US could interfere with plane instruments such as radar altimeters. which measure the distance between aircraft and the ground.

These are used by pilots to make safe landings in low visibility conditions.

In November the 5G concerns in the aviation sector went public in a big way, when the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it shared the aviation industry’s ‘deep concern’ over the rule change that allows the commercial use of 5G C-band spectrum.

The FAA however is in a long-running dispute with another US agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has said it does not believe 5G systems would interfere with flight equipment.

The FCC pointed out that other countries have studied using this C-band spectrum in wireless networks for more than 17 years, with no reports of any problems in the aviation space.

This and other evidence led the FCC in early 2020 to allow 5G operators to use the C-band, a range of radio frequencies between 3.7 and 4.2 gigahertz.

The FCC reviewed competing industry studies about the safety risks and said in a March 2020 order that “well-designed equipment should not ordinarily receive any significant interference (let alone harmful interference)”.

The aerospace and airline sector met with the FCC last August, saying at the time that “major disruptions to use of the National Airspace System can be expected from the rollout of 5G” and adding that the technology could force the FAA to “drastically reduce aviation operational capacity”.

The CTIA, which represents network operators, said operators can use C-band spectrum “without causing harmful interference to aviation equipment”.

But this did not stop Airbus Americas CEO Jeffrey Knittel and Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun issuing a letter just before Christmas, in which they urged the Biden administration to delay the rollout 5G service on 5 January 2022.

Last week aviation trade group, Airlines for America also asked the FCC to halt deployment of new 5G wireless service around many airports.

No evidence

The aviation concerns must be frustrating for industry experts, who have noted that numerous 5G networks are already safely operating in the band in 40 countries, without a single report of 5G causing harmful interference with air traffic of any kind.

Indeed, experts point out there does not seem to be any valid scientific or engineering basis to justify a 5G delay, and there is overwhelming evidence that 5G operates safely in the C-Band without causing harmful interference to air traffic.

The fact 5G signals in this C-band spectrum have been operating in many countries for some time – countries in which US airlines fly in and out of every day, means the aviation sector would have seen a problem long before now.

And the US already has an added a layer of protection called a guard band, that is hundreds of times greater than the separation that exists between wireless and other critical spectrum users.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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