AT&T, Verizon reject Buttigieg's request to delay next 5G launches

The request from the US transportation secretary arises from a concern that wireless signals using C-band spectrum could disrupt airplane cockpit instruments.

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AT&T and Verizon have rejected a request by US transportation officials to delay the planned launch this week of certain 5G wireless services, but offered to limit the power of their signals for six months, giving regulators more time to study how they could affect aircraft operations.

The rejection, which came in a letter from the companies on Sunday, was a response to a request made Friday by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Steve Dickson, administrator for the US Federal Aviation Administration, asking that the wireless carriers delay the launch of the services because of aviation safety concerns. The faceoff over the Jan. 5 service launch comes amid concern that these 5G signals, which use the C-band spectrum rather than other airwaves already in use for 5G services, could interfere with radio altimeters, which rely on similar signals to measure how far above the ground an airplane is at any given time.

Failure to act would result in "widespread and unacceptable disruption as airplanes divert to other cities or flights are canceled, causing ripple effects throughout the US air transportation system," Buttigieg and Dickson warned in a letter (PDF) to the companies' chief executives.

AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said Sunday that instead of delaying the deployment, they would adopt the same C-band radio exclusion zones already in place in France near runways at certain airports. (The FAA dispute doesn't involve T-Mobile's 5G network, which operates on a different spectrum frequency.)

"France provides a real-world example of an operating environment where 5G and aviation safety already co-exist," the CEOs wrote in the letter (see below). "If US 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 FAA said it's reviewing the letter, adding that US aviation safety standards would guide its next actions. The Transportation Department couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

The new 5G C-band spectrum is expected to offer faster and wider-reaching signals, improving on the relatively short range of higher-speed millimeter-wave 5G and providing speedier connections than the 4G LTE-like low-band 5G. Wireless companies are promoting 5G as both the next step technologically and a critical update offering faster internet speeds and reliability.  

Airline companies filed an emergency request with the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, threatening to sue if the rollout isn't delayed for further study of whether the signals would disrupt cockpit instruments.

In the past, the wireless industry has said it will take precautions to make sure 5G doesn't interfere with aircraft sensors. Carriers, along with experts from the FCC , have additionally said there are no serious interference issues.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a proponent of the new 5G services and a Republican, in a tweet Saturday accused the Biden administration of "working to needlessly delay C-Band operations." In a letter to Buttigieg, Carr called the request for a delay "highly irregular" and said the FCC's rules for 5G signals will protect airplane operations from harmful interference.

In November, the FAA warned about potential interference between key cockpit safety devices and cell towers on the ground transmitting 5G signals. And earlier this month, the FAA issued new directives to the airline industry warning that interference from 5G signals using the C-band spectrum could result in flight diversions, but the agency didn't quantify the impact. 

The CEOs' letter is embedded below: