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Verizon, AT&T delay 5G rollout plans again, bowing to aviation safety concerns

The deployment of the 5G services, which would offer faster speeds and broader range, was initially set for Dec. 5, then moved to Jan. 5. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News)

AT&T and Verizon said late Monday that they would again delay the deployment of their 5G wireless services, after the Federal Aviation Administration requested they do so in an effort to mitigate potential interference with airplane safety systems.

At Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s request, “we have voluntarily agreed to one additional two-week delay,” an AT&T spokesperson said in a statement. “We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues.”

A Verizon spokesman, Rich Young, said in a statement that the company agreed to a two-week delay, with the deployment still moving forward this month.

The deployment of the 5G services — which would offer faster Internet speeds and broader range on frequencies known as C-band — was initially set for Dec. 5, but the companies said in November they would delay until Jan. 5 to allow more time to “further assess any impact on aviation safety technologies.”

AT&T and Verizon said they would honor an FAA request to pause the activation of some wireless towers near key airports to avoid disrupting U.S. flights. (Video: Reuters)

Representatives of the aviation industry had raised concerns that the 5G signals could disrupt technology used by pilots to measure how far a plane is from the ground.

But the Federal Communications Commission, which has authority over the spectrum used to deliver 5G services, has pushed back against those concerns. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr wrote in a Jan. 1 letter to Buttigieg that his request for another delay was “highly irregular” and “not backed up by the science, engineering, or law.”

Carr noted that the FCC had made the plan for deployment “over 660 days ago in a thorough, 258-page” document, and that the delay would bog down “years of work and tens of billions of dollars in investment.”

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has previously warned against state and local delays. “If we want broad economic growth and widespread mobile opportunity, we need to avoid unnecessary delays,” she said.

On Sunday, AT&T and Verizon had denied the FAA’s request for a further delay. Agreeing to do so, they wrote, “would not only be an unprecedented and unwarranted circumvention of the due process and checks and balances carefully crafted in the structure of our democracy, but an irresponsible abdication of the operating control required to deploy world-class and globally competitive communications networks that are every bit as essential to our country’s economic vitality, public safety and national interests as the airline industry.”

The FAA said in a statement Monday night after the networks’ announcement that the agency “thanks AT&T and Verizon for agreeing to a voluntary delay and for their proposed mitigations. We look forward to using the additional time and space to reduce flight disruptions associated with this 5G deployment.”

President Biden praised the agreement, calling it “a significant step in the right direction,” according to a statement.

Many recent phones are already compatible with 5G, but the feature is of little use without access to a 5G network.