AT&T and Verizon will postpone new wireless service near some airports planned for this week after the nation’s largest airlines said the service would interfere with aircraft technology and cause massive flight disruptions.
The companies said Tuesday they would delay turning on new cell towers around runways at some airports — they did not say how many — and work with federal regulators to settle a dispute over potential interference from new 5G service.
The decision came after the airline industry raised the stakes in a showdown with AT&T and Verizon over plans to launch new 5G wireless service this week, warning that thousands of flights could be grounded or delayed if the rollout takes place near major airports.
CTIA (a trade association for the telecom sector) did not respond immediately to inquiries for comment.
On Monday, CEOs of the nation’s largest airlines said that interference from the wireless service will be worse than they originally thought.
“To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt” unless the service is blocked near major airports, the CEOs said in a letter Monday to federal officials including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has previously taken the airlines’ side in the matter.
Two miles from runways, the airlines requested that faster mobile services be prohibited.
AT&T and Verizon planned to activate their new 5G wireless service Wednesday after two previous delays from the original plan for an early December rollout.
High-speed 5G services use a portion of radio spectrum similar to altimeters. These devices measure aircraft height above ground. To land, pilots use altimeters.
AT&T and Verizon say their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics, and that the technology is being safely used in many other countries.
But, 10 CEOs from passenger and cargo airlines such as American, Delta, United, and Southwest said that 5G would be disruptive. Hundreds of large airports which had buffer zones in place to stop 5G interference will remain subject to restrictions, announced by the Federal Aviation Administration last week. They add that those restrictions won’t be limited to times when visibility is poor.
“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded. This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays,” the CEOs said.
Chief executives of the airlines requested that new 5G technology be banned within two miles from airport runways.
The showdown between two industries and their rival regulators — the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees radio spectrum — now threatens to further disrupt the aviation industry, which has been hammered by the pandemic for nearly two years.
It was a crisis years in the making.
According to the FAA, the airlines and FAA claim they raised alarms over possible interference from 5G CBand. However, the FCC ignored their concerns.
FCC supporters, telecoms operators and FCC representatives argue that aircraft altimeters are sufficiently far apart to prevent interference. They also say that the aviation industry has known about C-Band technology for several years but did nothing to prepare — airlines chose not to upgrade altimeters that might be subject to interference, and the FAA failed to begin surveying equipment on planes until the last few weeks.
After rival T-Mobile got what is called mid-band spectrum from its acquisition of Sprint, AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars for C-Band spectrum in a government auction run by the FCC to shore up their own mid-band needs, then spent billions more to build out new networks that they planned to launch in early December.
They agreed, however to suspend the service for January, in response to airlines’ concerns.
Late on New Year’s Eve, Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson asked the companies for another delay, warning of “unacceptable disruption” to air service.
AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg rejected the request in a letter that had a scolding, even mocking tone. They had second thoughts following White House intervention. The second delay was shorter, but they agreed that compromises would not be made.
Following that, a deal was reached in which the telecoms committed to reducing the power consumption of their networks at 50 airports within six months. It is similar to France’s wireless restrictions. In return, the Transportation Department and FAA agreed not to oppose 5G’s C-Band rollout.
President Joe Biden praised the deal, but the airlines weren’t satisfied with the agreement, regarding it as a victory for the telecoms that didn’t adequately address their concerns about trying to land planes at airports where the new service would be active.
New Yorker Tali Abel contributed to this article.