Telecoms set to launch new 5G spectrum over FAA objections

Lily Jamali Jan 3, 2022
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Despite FAA concerns over interference with altimeters, which helps planes land, Verizon and AT&T are slated to launch their 5G networks this week. Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images

Telecoms set to launch new 5G spectrum over FAA objections

Lily Jamali Jan 3, 2022
Heard on:
Despite FAA concerns over interference with altimeters, which helps planes land, Verizon and AT&T are slated to launch their 5G networks this week. Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images
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For the second time in two months, Verizon and AT&T are preparing to launch new 5G services in dozens of cities across the U.S. this week.

They’d planned to do this in December, but the Federal Aviation Administration issued a last-minute warning citing concerns that expanding 5G could interfere with the safety systems on airplanes. This weekend, the FAA requested they delay the launch again and the telecom companies refused.

Verizon and AT&T say they’ve addressed the FAA safety concerns in at least one key area: by curtailing 5G frequencies near airports and helipads for six months. 

In a letter on Sunday to the FAA, the companies said this and other accommodations were voluntary and in the “spirit of compromise.”

“I really feel like the FAA did not seem to realize that it could put its foot down and things would still move ahead,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a tech advocacy group. 

The FAA request for an additional delay stems from concern that — whenever it’s deployed — the frequencies 5G uses (on what’s called the C-Band spectrum) are still going to interfere with the altimeters that help airplanes land.

That’s too important, said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “We will not make crews and the traveling public guinea pigs on whether or not the system is safe,” she said.

Nelson warns that moving ahead could mean grounding flights — the last thing many airlines want after the holiday season that was.

Some observers see this as a clash between federal agencies. The FAA is up against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) whose mandate is to make 5G happen.

It’s the FCC that’s the expert agency here, said Jeff Westling, director of technology and innovation Policy at the American Action Forum.

“They have looked at these claims and they’ve essentially rejected them, saying they have looked at all the data and don’t think there’s a likely chance of harmful interference,” Westling said.

The telecom companies also point out that 5G and aviation already coexist safely in other parts of the world. 

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