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Wireless carriers to limit 5G near airports after airlines warn of major disruptions

AT&T and Verizon are planning to activate new high-speed networks Wednesday but agreed to concessions

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)
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Wireless companies AT&T and Verizon said Tuesday they would limit the rollout of new high-speed 5G networks near airports, a step the Federal Aviation Administration said should avert possible flight disruptions and much of the potential for interference with airplane safety technology.

Airlines had begun preparing employees for a wave of disruptions tied to the rollout, while some international operators canceled flights to the United States. Tuesday’s deal marked another temporary fix in a dispute that has put different parts of the federal government at loggerheads, while leaving two of the nation’s major industries at odds.

The White House helped broker the deal, which President Biden said would still enable 90 percent of new wireless towers to launch as planned.

“This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans,” Biden said in a statement.

The telecommunications companies had twice delayed activating the towers in recent months to give aviation safety regulators more time to analyze potential interference with devices on planes known as radio altimeters. The devices measure how high planes are flying and are critical for landing in poor visibility.

The new 5G systems use a wireless spectrum known as the C-band, which is close to the airwaves altimeters rely on, creating the potential for interference.

Nicholas Calio, chief executive of trade group Airlines for America, said Tuesday he welcomed the deal, but he said the industry was still awaiting details.

“This pause provides the opportunity to ensure all stakeholders, consumers and the U.S. economy are served in the long run,” he said.

Despite agreeing to change their rollout plans, the two wireless carriers issued statements expressing disappointment that the FAA had not been able to resolve lingering safety issues.

“At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment,” AT&T said.

Other nations have activated 5G networks and have not seen elevated risks to aviation safety, prompting supporters of the technology to say the airlines’ concerns are overblown. But the FAA, drawing comparisons with France, says there have been safeguards overseas that are not in place in the United States, such as wider buffer areas around airports, lower power transmissions and antennas tilted toward the ground.

On Monday, Calio and 10 airline executives wrote to the White House and aviation and spectrum regulators warning in stark terms about looming disruptions.

“Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded,” they wrote, adding, “To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

The airlines, trying to recover from the pandemic downturn and thousands of canceled flights around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, asked that the 5G rollout not be allowed within two miles of airport runways. AT&T said its changes were in line with that request. Verizon did not share details about how it would limit its service.

Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, a labor union, said he supported limitations to the 5G rollout but added that the aviation industry needs long-term guarantees to ensure the safety of flight.

“The United States has the safest air transportation system in the world, and our trained-for-life pilots plan to keep it that way,” DePete said in a statement. “But this is no way to protect that safety record and America’s vital aviation industry, which is so critical to our nation’s economy and the global supply chain.”

The wireless companies earlier this month agreed to delay activating their networks for two weeks, giving the FAA more time to study the issue. The agency’s findings suggest any effects would be felt unevenly, with some kinds of planes and some airports affected more than others.

The FAA has evaluated some altimeter systems in recent weeks and said before Tuesday’s deal that those on many Boeing and Airbus jets — which account for 45 percent of the nation’s commercial fleet — remained safe to use at some airports. In other instances, the FAA said interference would remain an issue. The agency expects to issue more approvals for other altimeters in the coming days.

At some major airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — the nation’s busiest — and Reagan National Airport outside Washington, the FAA has said it sees no potential for interference from 5G networks, because of where the system is being rolled out or because towers are farther from runways.

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Amid discussions involving the wireless companies and the Biden administration in recent weeks, airlines began preparing workers for disruptions.

United Airlines said in a statement before the agreement was announced that the 5G rollout would have a “devastating impact” on aviation. The carrier estimated that more than 1,000 flights a month could be affected — creating potential inconveniences for more than 1 million passengers annually. In addition, cargo carried in the belly of those planes could be affected, the carrier said.

American Airlines Chief Operating Officer David Seymour had said in a memo that the carrier’s management anticipated “delays, diversions and cancellations that are well beyond our control.” He continued, “We’re incredibly disappointed that we are at this point, that the entire U.S. airline industry is facing major disruption as new wireless technology is activated.”

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In an internal memo, JetBlue chief executive Robin Hayes said despite the two-week delay, “too many concerns remain unresolved.”

Among the airports that could be affected, Hayes said, were John F. Kennedy International in New York, Boston’s Logan International, Los Angeles International and Orlando International.

Jessica Rosenworcel, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves, said despite the limitations announced Tuesday, the deal paved the way for economically vital 5G to reach millions more households and businesses.

“This is welcome news because we know that deployment can safely co-exist with aviation technologies in the United States, just as it does in other countries around the world,” she said in a statement after the deal was announced.

5G networks are the next stage in evolution for wireless Internet and are expected to foster a wave of innovation. Verizon says the C-band will bring the faster service to a wider swath of the country and allow the company to offer high-speed home Internet over the air.

Aija Leiponen, a professor at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business, said the government faces pressure to help get the 5G networks off the ground but also cannot tolerate risks to aviation safety. She said the underlying questions have been long understood and resolved in other countries, so there is no reason the U.S. government should have allowed a crisis to brew.

“It’s baffling to me that we’re in this situation on January 18 when on January 19 these things are supposed to be turned on,” Leiponen said.