AT&T and Verizon Pivot on FAA Standoff

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By: Mary Jander


[Updated 1/3/2022] AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) have agreed to delay the rollout of their long-awaited 5G services based on C-band spectrum for another two weeks.

Initially, the carriers pushed back against a New Year’s Eve request from federal officials and aviation industry groups to delay the January 5 rollout of 5G services. They planned to proceed with the rollout on Wednesday of this week, albeit on reduced power and with so-called exclusion zones around some airport runways.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Transportation threatened that flight restrictions starting Wednesday could snarl U.S. air traffic already suffering from COVID delays and cancellations. Ultimately, it seems pleas and legal threats from airline groups and the government resulted in the pivot.

An Ongoing Fight Turns Vicious

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The news is the latest in an ongoing fight between the mobile service providers and the aviation industry -- and the U.S. government bodies both sides rely on for legal support. On one side, representatives of pilots and air-traffic personnel claim the C-band spectrum will interfere with the instruments called altimeters that guide aircraft in takeoffs and landings. Hence, they request that carriers delay their latest rollout for two more weeks in order to allow time for the FAA to identify airports most at risk and to ensure adequate buffer space between spectrum allocations for the altimeters and 5G gear.

The call for delay is the second the carriers have faced. In November 2021, they agreed to wait an extra 30 days until January 5 to address the safety concerns.

The carriers aren't waiting patiently. In a letter to Secretary of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Marlene Dortch, their representatives accuse the aviation industry of “holding the C-Band hostage” in order to force AT&T and Verizon to pay the bill for upgraded altimeters.

Specifically, Verizon and AT&T say the aviation industry had nearly two years to address safety concerns but apparently neglected to replace or upgrade “any obsolete altimeters that, in the view of some aviation interests, do an abnormally poor job of filtering signals in bands far removed from the 4.2-4.4 GHz aeronautical altimetry band.” The carriers repeatedly point out that the altimeters occupy spectrum at 4.2 GHz to 4.4 GHz, plenty far away from C-band’s 3.7 GHz to 3.8 GHz.

Why AT&T and Verizon?

AT&T and Verizon also argue that they’ve been unfairly singled out by the FAA. In their initial rebuttal to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg state: “[T]he proposal is directed at only two companies, regardless of the terms of licenses auctioned and granted, and to the exception of every other company and industry within the purview of the FCC.”

Indeed, it’s not clear exactly why the government is focused specifically on AT&T and Verizon. But both are first in the U.S. to claim service delivery in the 3.7 GHz to 3.8 GHz range. T-Mobile (Nasdaq: TMUS) is known for its adherence to 2.5-GHz services and has pointed to 2023 as the target for completion of its own 5G network.

Both AT&T and Verizon, along with the public cloud providers, 5G equipment providers, and numerous other partners, have a lot riding on a C-band service rollout. Unless and until more performant 5G services become generally available, industry momentum remains frustrated, particularly when it comes to enterprise deployments. Here’s how the carriers refer to their effort in their initial response to officials Dickson and Buttigieg:

“AT&T and Verizon spent most of 2021 preparing to put the C-Band spectrum into service. In addition to the tens of billions of dollars we paid to the U.S. Government for the spectrum and the additional billions of dollars we paid to the satellite companies to enable the December 2021 availability of the spectrum, we have paid billions of dollars to purchase the necessary equipment and lease space on towers. Thousands of our employees have worked non-stop for months to prepare our networks to utilize this spectrum. Thousands more have been trained to engage with customers as the new spectrum is put to use.”

Now, AT&T and Verizon have agreed not just to wait two weeks more but to reduce their 5G power and limit network operations to fit space restrictions such as those used in France until July 5, 2022. The FAA plans to use the current two-week grace period to identify the top 50 U.S. airports allegedly most at risk of disruption by the 5G rollout. Whether these measures will ultimately resolve the issue remains a question.