AT&T, Verizon Refuse FAA Request to Delay 5G Launch

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    AT&T Inc.

    T -0.73%

    and

    Verizon Communications Inc.

    VZ -0.56%

    rebuffed a request from federal transportation officials to delay the launch of new 5G wireless services but offered a counterproposal that would allow limited deployments to move forward this week.

    The cellphone carriers said Sunday in a letter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal that they could further dim the power of their new 5G service for six months to match limits imposed by regulators in France, giving U.S. authorities more time to study more powerful signals’ effect on air traffic. The plan from the companies, which have said they plan to start service Wednesday, could prolong a standoff between the telecom and aviation industries over how to proceed.

    “If U.S. airlines are permitted to operate flights every day in France, then the same operating conditions should allow them to do so in the United States,” the chief executives wrote in the letter.

    Telecom-industry officials have pointed to dozens of countries, including France, that have already allowed cellular service over the frequencies in question, known as C-band. France is among the countries that have imposed wireless limits near airports while regulators study their effect on aircraft.

    The message from AT&T CEO

    John Stankey

    and Verizon CEO

    Hans Vestberg

    was in response to a letter Transportation Secretary

    Pete Buttigieg

    and Federal Aviation Administration chief

    Steve Dickson

    sent late Friday. The New Year’s Eve missive asked the carriers to postpone their planned 5G launch by “no more than two weeks” while officials worked to address the wireless services’ effect on specific airports on a rolling basis over the coming weeks.

    The FAA said it was reviewing the wireless companies’ letter. “U.S. aviation safety standards will guide our next actions,” the FAA said. Representatives from the Transportation Department, the FAA’s parent agency, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

    Air-safety regulators have said the new cellular services could confuse key cockpit safety systems and have been preparing to impose potentially disruptive flight restrictions.

    AT&T and Verizon disputed claims of any air-safety risk, though the companies already postponed a planned December debut of the new signals to provide more time for telecom and aviation regulators to share information about the wireless infrastructure and aircraft equipment in question.

    The Sunday letter from telecom CEOs said transportation regulators’ latest delay request would be to “the detriment of millions of our consumer, business and government customers,” noting that carriers spent more than $80 billion to acquire the licenses in a Federal Communications Commission auction that closed in January 2021.

    FCC authorities padded the spectrum they auctioned with a swath of buffer frequencies to prevent interference with cockpit systems. But air-safety regulators have expressed concern that more sensitive altimeters that pick up signals well beyond their defined range could mistake cellular transmissions for terrain. The devices feed data to commonly used cockpit systems that help planes automatically land in bad weather, prevent crashes and avoid midair collisions.

    AT&T and Verizon have spent the past year preparing to turn on new signals to provide new fifth-generation wireless technology, a faster and more capable mobile service. Wireless companies in other countries already use similar frequencies, but the spectrum wasn’t available to U.S. providers until recently because of existing satellite users that had to be moved into a narrower band of spectrum before 5G service could begin.

    Without a resolution to the aviation-telecom dispute, Messrs. Buttigieg and Dickson warned the FAA’s flight limits would bring severe economic consequences.

    “Failure to reach a solution by Jan. 5 will force the U.S. aviation sector to take steps to protect the safety of the traveling public, particularly during periods of low visibility or inclement weather,” they wrote in their Dec. 31 letter.

    Airlines have been bracing for significant flight cancellations and diversions due to potential FAA flight restrictions because of the regulator’s aviation-safety concerns. Pilots and airlines had been awaiting details of potential FAA flight restrictions that limit the use of systems that rely on radar altimeters. Aviation industry officials have most recently expected the agency to detail flight limits as soon as Monday.

    Over the past week, U.S. air travel has been snarled by a mix of winter storms and staffing challenges because of increasing ranks of airline crews calling in sick with Covid-19 as the U.S. deals with a surge by the Omicron variant. Thousands of flights have been canceled and delayed.

    5G and Air Traffic

    More WSJ coverage on the debate over wireless frequencies and aviation, selected by the editors.

    Write to Drew FitzGerald at [email protected] and Andrew Tangel at [email protected]

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