In an ongoing battle pitting the FAA and airlines against the FCC, Verizon, and AT&T over their planned launch of mid-band 5G service, the mobile carriers are declining a request by the FAA for a two-week delay.
Earlier this year, an FCC auction sold the two carriers rights to use so-called “C-band” frequencies at a price of nearly $70 billion. Verizon and AT&T are eager to roll it out so that in addition to offering ultra-fast 5G connectivity in specific areas using high-band millimeter-wave technology and much slower 5G over low-band frequencies, the new spectrum will provide in-between performance over much wider areas. T-Mobile currently uses mid-band spectrum that isn’t in the C-band.
On Friday, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson sent a letter to AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg Friday, asking them to push back plans to start commercial deployment on January 5th. The air travel regulators said they’d use that time to identify priority airports, notify flights, and line up alternate methods of compliance.
Bloomberg and Reuters report that in a response letter today from the two CEOs, the companies, which had already ceded to a 30-day delay request and agreed to reduce the power of their signals, said no. They propose to start using the C-band spectrum to expand their 5G services, but with a commitment to avoid deployment around certain airports for six months, saying a similar system is already in place in France. However, that commitment relies “on the condition that the FAA and the aviation industry are committed to doing the same without escalating their grievances, unfounded as they are, in other venues.”
In the letter (included below), they say:
“Now, on the evening of New Year’s Eve, just five days before the C-Band spectrum will be deployed, we received your letter asking us to take still more voluntary steps - to the detriment of our millions of consumer, business and government customers - to once again assist the aviation industry and the FAA after failing to resolve issues in that costly 30-day delay period, which we never considered to be an initial one.”
“At its core, your proposed framework asks that we agree to transfer oversight of our companies’ multi-billion dollar investment in 50 unnamed metropolitan areas representing the lion’s share of the U.S. population to the FAA for an undetermined number of months or years. Even worse, the proposal is directed to only two companies, regardless of the terms of licenses auctioned and granted, and to the exception of every other company and industry within the purview of the FCC.”
“...we will again volunteer, in the spirit of cooperation and good faith, to alter our use of the C-Band spectrum during the same six-month period (unless we and the FAA determine that these voluntary limits should be relaxed sooner). Specifically, for six months, until July 5, 2022, we will adopt the same C-Band radio exclusion zones that are already in use in France, with slight adaptation to reflect the modest technical differences in how C-band is being deployed in the two countries. That approach – which is one of the most conservative in the world – would include extensive exclusion zones around the runways at certain airports. The effect would be to further reduce C-band signal levels by at least 10 times on the runway or during the last mile of final approach and the first mile after takeoff.”
FCC commissioner Mike O’Reilly tweeted about the letter, saying, “We can have safe wireless and safe flights. Reasoned people should accept US wireless industry not have more C-Band limitations than France.”
At issue is the idea that guided landing systems for aircraft “could be limited due to concerns that the 5G signal could interfere with the accuracy of an airplane’s radio altimeter, without other mitigations in place,” according to the FAA. C-band 5G and these radio altimeters don’t actually operate in the same band, but the bands are close enough that the fear exists.
Reuters points out that the trade group Airlines for America that represents American Airlines, JetBlue, Delta, FedEx, and UPS, among others, has threatened to go to court on Monday if the FCC does not take action on the 5G rollout.
So far, the FAA’s response to the letter is that “We are reviewing the latest letter from the wireless companies on how to mitigate interference from 5G C-band transmissions. U.S. aviation safety standards will guide our next actions.”
Update January 2nd, 6:07PM ET: Added the letter from Verizon and AT&T’s CEOs.