AT&T and Verizon agree to pause 5G rollout over FAA safety concerns

The FAA warned earlier this week of potential interference issues between aircraft safety devices and 5G service using new C-band spectrum.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

A crew works on a cell tower in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

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AT&T and Verizon confirmed Thursday that they've agreed to temporarily pause rolling out 5G service that uses a new set of radio frequencies. The carriers will work with the US Federal Aviation Administration to address concerns about potential interference between key cockpit safety devices and towers on the ground transmitting 5G signals. 

AT&T said in a statement that it planned to delay its 5G deployment until Jan. 5 after getting a request from the Transportation Department, which oversees the FAA.  

A Verizon spokesman confirmed to CNET that the company has also agreed to a temporary pause in deployment of 5G over the C-band spectrum in order to work in good faith with the agency. But he said the company is still on track to deploy service using this midband spectrum. 

"We're moving full speed ahead with our plans to bring 5G over this spectrum in early 2022," the Verizon spokesman said. 

Verizon had previously said it planned to deploy service using the C-band spectrum in the first quarter of 2022, to cover 100 million people. 

News of the voluntary pause in deployment by AT&T and Verizon was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.

The FAA and the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates use of public wireless spectrum for communication, issued a joint statement saying they'd work with the companies to mitigate safety concerns and to continue to coordinate efforts to ensure safety. 

The FAA on Tuesday issued a special information bulletin alerting manufacturers, operators and pilots about potential interference involving cockpit electronics and 5G. The FAA has said towers on the ground transmitting 5G over the C-band of wireless spectrum could interfere with automated cockpit systems such as those that help planes land in poor weather. 

The agency had been planning to issue official mandates to limit the use of certain cockpit systems, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. 

Telecom industry specialists say there's no evidence of interference issues with respect to the C-band spectrum and flight equipment. CTIA, the wireless industry lobby group, said in a filing to the FCC on Wednesday that "nearly 40 countries have already adopted rules and deployed hundreds of thousands of 5G base stations in the C-Band at similar frequencies and similar power levels -- and in some instances, at closer proximity to aviation operations -- than 5G will be in the U.S."

CTIA went on to say that none of the countries using this spectrum for 5G has reported any harmful interference with aviation equipment from these deployments. The group urged the FCC to "ensure that C-Band 5G deployments remain on track in the U.S." 

New spectrum for 5G 

The spectrum or airwaves used to transmit the 5G service in question is known as C-band. This midband spectrum in the 3.7-3.98GHz band has been viewed by the wireless industry as a key technology to allow for faster 5G service that can provide better range than 5G service using very high frequency millimeter-wave spectrum. 

Verizon says that this new spectrum will allow it to offer peak download speeds of 1 gigabit per second. 

The FCC auction of the C-band airwaves earlier this year generated a record-breaking $81 billion in proceeds. Verizon and AT&T were the two biggest winners. Verizon won $45.45 billion worth of licenses, while AT&T spent $23.4 billion on its C-band airwaves.  

In March, Verizon said it would start deploying this midband spectrum for 5G service in 46 markets with the goal of covering 100 million people by next March. That number will grow to 175 million people between 2022 and 2023 and over 250 million people in 2024, the company said.

For AT&T and Verizon the addition of the C-band spectrum for 5G is a key part of their wireless strategies. Though millimeter spectrum, which both carriers currently use for their fastest 5G service, provides speedy downloads, it's generally available only outdoors in parts of certain cities because of physical limitations of the spectrum. 

By contrast, the nationwide 5G service offered by these carriers uses a combination of 4G and 5G technologies over lower frequency spectrum. The benefit of this spectrum is that it can transmit signals over longer distances, but the speeds that can be obtained are similar or sometimes even less than what can be achieved over existing 4G LTE service. 

The promise of the C-band midband spectrum is that it can offer faster speeds over greater distances, which should help these companies improve 5G service in urban and suburban markets. And because midband spectrum is able to penetrate walls more easily than millimeter wave technology, it should also improve 5G coverage indoors.