The next steps in the 5G rollout
Jan 18, 2022

The next steps in the 5G rollout

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The spectrum deployment was delayed for months over safety concerns but is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

AT&T and Verizon are set to turn on their newest 5G technology Wednesday. Both companies purchased rights to more of the spectrum last year and have been ready to deploy it for months.

But those plans have been on hold over concerns the expansion into that bandwidth could interfere with the tech on planes — specifically an aircraft’s altimeter, one of the tools that help planes land safely.

To mitigate those concerns, the Federal Aviation Administration released a list of 50 airports that will have 5G buffer zones.

Joe Kane is director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Joe Kane: The buffer zones are going to be in place for six months, and that’s going to delay 5G deployment in those areas. So, I think people who perhaps live in those areas aren’t going to see their 5G be as high quality as quickly as people outside of them.

Joe Kane smiles wearing a blue collared shirt in front of a body of water.
Joe Kane (courtesy Jessie McBirney)

Kimberly Adams: Both AT&T and Verizon spent billions of dollars to secure this particular spectrum for their 5G. What’s been the financial impact of slowing down the rollout?

Kane: I think the hope is still that there won’t be a significant impact as long as there aren’t further delays. It’s not as though they’re losing customers over this at the present time, I don’t think, but further delays and I think the uncertainty that could result if they believe that other agencies are going to swoop in before they turn on other systems and change the rules on them at the last minute, that could have bigger long-term effects.

Adams: What are some of the takeaways from this situation that’s been going on for the last couple months, or really the last couple of years, that might inform policy on similar rollouts in the future?

Kane: Yeah, I think it highlights that there is increasing tension between the [Federal Communications Commission] and executive branch agencies when it comes to spectrum allocation. And so there’s the agencies that, their areas they’re used to regulating, but when they run up against each other, no one wants to give way. And so we have a process of dealing with that, which is that the executive branch agencies go to the Department of Commerce, and there’s a process for lodging their concerns with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. And then they sort of present their concerns to the FCC, and this is supposed to get worked out between engineers on both sides to find out, is there a problem and how should we address it? And that’s sort of not been happening in the right way for the last few years because we’ve seen people, like we have in this case, the FCC will make a decision, and then at the last minute, the executive branch agency will raise concerns and say, “Actually, the area that we regulate is more important here, and we need you to reverse this decision because of that.” And I think that’s not a good way to run spectrum allocation. It’s not good for consumers who use wireless services. Spectrum bands are being used in internal political fights instead of deploying service in them.

Adams: And so what’s the next step?

Kane: So the next step is to wait till January 19 when this delay is supposed to end. And at that time, with the the sort of limitations and exclusion zones that the carriers have agreed to, they should be able to turn on their service in C-band as they had initially planned.

Adams: Do you have a sense of how many people will, you know, see their service start to get a lot faster once that finally gets rolled out?

Kane: I don’t have a number of people. I know that this is spectrum that is very valuable, and it’s licensed throughout the country. Part of the problem is that this 5G spectrum depends on you also having a 5G phone. And so we’re sort of waiting on both ends of that balance to work themselves out — that we need people to have their 5G devices as well as have the 5G spectrum operational to really see the full benefits.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

This 5G stuff can get pretty technical rather quickly, and Kane did his best to keep things simple for us.

But, if you’re interested, The Daily Beast has an article by an electrical engineer breaking down just how the tech works and what it will mean for you. Here’s a link for the Federal Aviation Administration’s list of those 50 airports with 5G buffer zones.

And it’s not just the big telecom companies getting into 5G. The FCC continues to auction off bits of the 5G spectrum, and it announced another round of winners last week. Yes, the big firms like AT&T, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular won the largest number of licenses, but the agency said at least 23 of the winners were small businesses or entities that serve rural communities.

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The team

Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer