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Why 5G fight has no quick fix for AT&T, Verizon as aviation jitters grow

AT&T (T) and Verizon agreed to delay the rollout of 5G frequency near some airports and aviation infrastructure, but a permanent fix still eludes all of the major players – including the government and airlines worried about the impact on flight technology.

On Tuesday, AT&T and Verizon (VZ) announced they would limit or delay the rollout of ‘C-band’ service near U.S. airports, extending a previously agreed delay from Verizon and AT&T that was set to expire.

Previously, the telecoms had agreed to delay the launch of the newer, faster cellular service for two weeks in order to address regulatory and industry questions. Air carriers have raised concerns about 5G affecting passenger flights, a few of which have already been delayed or canceled.

According to former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, Tuesday's deal mitigates, but does not eliminate, some of the immediate concerns that have created a standoff between the aviation industry and telecom giants that have spent tens of billions to acquire the spectrum bandwidth, and the necessary technology to make it all work for subscribers.


“The telecom companies and the airlines are cutting the middle here,” Huerta told Yahoo Finance Live on Tuesday.

He argued a solution could come from changes to how the new 5G frequency is deployed near airports, and a continued refresh of the technology aboard aircraft. However, that will require communication across both industries, Huerta added.

Not just planes

Robert Bryan, chief pilot at Eagle Aviation, readies a plane for flight at Columbia Metro airport in West Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., January 8, 2022. REUTERS/Sam Wolfe
Robert Bryan, chief pilot at Eagle Aviation, readies a plane for flight at Columbia Metro airport in West Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., January 8, 2022. REUTERS/Sam Wolfe (Sam Wolfe / reuters)

In a statement, President Joe Biden said the agreement would ensure air safety without disrupting air travel and allow for 90% of 5G wireless towers to be deployed. He vowed to engage with stakeholders to “close the remaining gap and reach a permanent, workable solution around these key airports,” but worries remain as 5G is rolled out elsewhere.

“It's actually more of an issue for helicopters if you consider the fact that we're flying much lower, in urban environments and in places where we're likely to see 5G towers come out first,” according to John Shea, director of government affairs at the Helicopter Association International.

Shea told Yahoo Finance that it’s possible frequency interference could cause trouble for flights over urban areas, like those commonly undertaken by medical and rescue helicopters.

The aviation industry, known for tight safety regulation, is not counting on equipment refreshes. “We’re looking at being years away from having a 5G-resistant radio altimeter,” said Shea. He added that the variety of equipment, 5G towers, and airplane configurations all make matters worse.

“The aircraft varies and the radio altimeter varies, and a simple [fix] will not work in most circumstances,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the aviation industry is worried that the new frequency band may interfere with equipment that help determine an aircraft’s height and aid pilots in visibility and throttle control, among other systems.

The frequency in which ‘C-band’ operates is adjacent to the frequencies commonly used by aircraft altimeters to measure altitude, M. Cenk Gursoy, professor in electrical engineering and computer science at Syracuse University, explained to Yahoo Finance.

Altimeters send signals to the ground and measure how long it takes for the signal to return, which could see interference from ‘C-band’ transmissions.

Telecom carriers have turned to the new frequency to alleviate some problems with existing 5G technology. Currently, 5G coverage suffers from poor range and coverage, or sees speeds and capacity not noticeably better than 4G networks. Carriers say the move to a dedicated data frequency will alleviate most of these problems.

The ‘C-band’ frequency was previously used for satellite transmissions by broadcasters before it was auctioned off by the FCC to U.S. telecom operators AT&T and Verizon early last year. T-Mobile has sidestepped this issue since its 5G service operates on a different frequency.

But Gursoy explained ‘C-band’ use was previously not as concerning to the aviation industry because of its niche applications and use at locations typically not close to air traffic.

“The major thing is widespread deployment of base stations close to airports that might lead to harmful interference,” he told Yahoo Finance.

Aviation industry advocates admit some of the confusion comes from a lack of communication. “As I understand it, the telecoms were under the impression that the spectrum was free of interference,” Huerta said. “Clearly some communication that needed to take place then did not take place.”

Huerta pointed to other countries that have solved the issue by making a detailed analysis of where towers with the new frequency are located, and scrutinizing how it might interact with airport systems.

“This is something that requires a great deal of collaboration at the governmental level,” Huerta said, insisting there was a middle ground. “It just requires everyone working together.”

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