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Air cargo relief: AT&T, Verizon delay 5G service near airports

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AT&T and Verizon each announced Tuesday they will postpone upgraded wireless service near some airports after the nation’s largest airlines warned that the service would interfere with aircraft technology and cause massive flight disruptions for both cargo and passenger planes.

The companies will delay turning on new cell towers around runways at some airports and work with federal regulators to settle a dispute over potential interference from new 5G service. The service was scheduled to start Wednesday.

The White House issued a statement Tuesday afternoon, with President Biden thanking “Verizon and AT&T for agreeing to delay 5G deployment around key airports and to continue working with the Department of Transportation on safe 5G deployment at this limited set of locations.

“This agreement will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90% of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled. 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.

“Expanding 5G and promoting competition in internet service are critical priorities of mine, and tomorrow will be a massive step in the right direction. My team has been engaging non-stop with the wireless carriers, airlines, and aviation equipment manufacturers to chart a path forward for 5G deployment and aviation to safely co-exist – and, at my direction, they will continue to do so until we close the remaining gap and reach a permanent, workable solution around these key airports.”

In announcing their delays Tuesday, AT&T and Verizon both cited the ability of other countries to safely incorporate 5G near airports.

“We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner,” AT&T spokesperson Megan Ketterer said in a statement.

“As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports,” Verizon said in a separate statement. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries.”

Watch: Craig Fuller on the 5G rollout at airports

On Monday, U.S. airlines warned the White House that possible interference with radio altimeters could cause delays and cancellations for thousands of flights across the passenger and shipping sectors. The nation’s largest airports were expected to be disrupted.

In a letter to the Biden administration obtained by FreightWaves and first reported by Reuters, airline CEOs warned that if the rollout is allowed to move forward, “the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt. … Unless 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 [Saturday], more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays,” the letter stated.

The letter requested that “5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate two miles of airport runways at affected airports as defined by the FAA.”

Executives signing the letter — organized by industry group Airlines for America — represented Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Air Group, JetBlue Airways, and Hawaiian Airlines, along with cargo airlines Atlas Air Worldwide, FedEx Express and UPS Airlines.

It was sent to White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcell.

“To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt,” the letter stated.

Previously, AT&T and Verizon, which won nearly all of the C-Band spectrum in an $80 billion auction last year, on Jan. 3 agreed to buffer zones around 50 airports to reduce interference risks and take other steps to cut potential interference for six months. They also had agreed to delay deployment for two weeks until Wednesday, temporarily averting an aviation safety standoff, after previously delaying service by 30 days.

The airlines urged action to ensure “5G is deployed except when towers are too close to airport runways until the FAA can determine how that can be safely accomplished without catastrophic disruption.”

Phone carriers have long pointed out that 5G is already in use in Europe, and American air carriers fly there on a daily basis with no issues.

Les Abend, FLYING magazine contributing editor and retired Boeing 777 captain, has been watching the 5G issue unfold for years, noting the technology from 1G to 5G has taken the better part of two decades to evolve.

While it may seem that the airlines only recently became aware of the issue and raised the alarm, Abend noted that many technological advances — and the potential impact on industries beyond cellular technology — were not considered during the wireless service development.

“It’s the transmission towers for 5G, not the use of 5G in cellphones, that is the issue,” Abend said. “It is important to make that distinction.”

The aviation industry warns that 5G transmission will disrupt the signals necessary for the proper operation of several systems on transport category aircraft — and many business jets as well — and one of the most important is the radio altimeter that gives the pilot critical information about the aircraft’s height above terrain.

Radio altimeter information systems issue verbal warnings and cautions on takeoff and landing, letting the pilot know how close they are to the ground below the airplane. These callouts are critical for instrument approaches, especially during periods of extremely low visibility—what are known as CAT II and CAT III approaches.

“The radio altimeter provides critical information on these approaches. Certain parameters, such as altitude, need to be correct before the approach can continue,” Abend said.

For example, an approach might call for the jet to level off at a certain altitude and stay there until it reaches the final approach fix before it can continue the descent.

“If the pilot loses the ability to determine the aircraft’s height above ground, the pilot also won’t know when to go around,” Abend explained, adding that if the radio altimeter is unreliable, it could result in a canceled flight. “If it is part of the aircraft’s minimum equipment list, it becomes a no-go situation.”

Abend is skeptical of the wireless providers’ assertions that 5G is already in use in Europe where U.S. airlines fly every day without issue.

“I would like to know where those 5G towers are in relation to Paris and Heathrow,” he said. (Read FLYING magazine story.)