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Verizon and AT&T delay crucial 5G expansion over aircraft interference concerns

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The FAA warned this week that C-band 5G could cause issues with certain radio-based safety systems

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Verizon and AT&T are delaying the rollout of their wider 5G networks after the Federal Aviation Administration warned that the new wireless technology could interfere with the safety systems of some aircraft, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The two companies planned to light up new 5G networks that use so-called “C-band” frequencies on December 5th. That rollout will now be delayed until at least January 5th, the companies said Thursday.

Verizon and AT&T still currently offer ultra-fast 5G connectivity in specific areas using high-band millimeter-wave technology and much slower 5G over low-band frequencies. But the two companies have been banking on using the C-band — which covers midrange frequencies with good-to-great speed — to dramatically expand access to 5G across the country. The two companies collectively spent nearly $70 billion earlier this year to gain access to a bunch of C-band spectrum that was up for auction. T-Mobile, the other major player in the wireless market, already has a lot of mid-band spectrum that doesn’t operate in the C-band (though it will in a few years).

The aviation industry has voiced concerns over C-band interference for a while now. In an August meeting with the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, industry reps said that “major disruptions to use of the National Airspace System can be expected” with the rollout of C-band 5G.

Those concerns came to a head this week when the FAA released a “special information bulletin” about potential interference issues with safety equipment that relies on radio altimeters. While the agency said that there have been no documented incidents of “harmful interference” in other countries to date, it nonetheless warned aircraft operators that they “should be prepared for the possibility that interference from 5G transmitters and other technology could cause certain safety equipment to malfunction, requiring them to take mitigating action that could affect flight operations.”

AT&T said Thursday that it is working with the FAA and FCC to better understand the aviation industry’s concerns. “It is critical that these discussions be informed by the science and the data,” the company said in a statement provided to The Verge. “That is the only path to enabling experts and engineers to assess whether any legitimate co-existence issues exist.”

The major wireless trade group, the CTIA, said last week that companies should be able to use C-band 5G “without causing harmful interference to aviation equipment,” Reuters reported. The group pointed to the many successful C-band deployments in other countries as evidence. “Any delay in activating this spectrum risks America’s competitiveness,” the group wrote.