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'Rushed Approach'

Verizon, AT&T Agree to Further Delay Parts of C-Band Build; Airlines Balk

The FAA said Friday “key stakeholders in the aviation and wireless industries” have identified steps that will protect commercial air travel while allowing Verizon and AT&T to turn up the power on 5G C-band radios around protected airports on a case-by-case basis. The carriers agreed to keep mitigation measures in place around some airports for another year or longer. Airlines for America (A4A), which represents major airlines, raised concerns in a Friday letter to the FAA.

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The statement comes before the next C-band milestone, July 5, when the two carriers are allowed to turn up power levels around some airports under an agreement that allowed Verizon to start turning on the C-band in January (see 2201200070). AT&T plans to deploy its C-band spectrum concurrent with 3.45 GHz spectrum in the second half of the year (see 2204210061).

On Thursday, acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen advised airlines to move quickly to install filters on altimeters at risk from deployment (see 2206160077). The letter to Nolan from A4A President Nicholas Calio said the FAA “has placed the burden on the aviation industry to act in a way that would previously be considered, by the FAA itself, to be reckless in the context of design changes to safety-critical avionics.”

Problems arose “from a stark lack of critical cooperation, information sharing and development of interagency consensus on appropriate limitations leading up to the 2021 spectrum auction,” Calio said: “Airlines always hold safety as their paramount and uncompromising standard, and service to the public as their mission. Both are jeopardized by the rushed approach to avionics modifications amid pressure from the telecommunications companies.”

Carriers hailed the development.

Today’s announcement identifies a path forward that will enable Verizon to make full use of our C-Band spectrum for 5G around airports on an accelerated and defined schedule,” said a statement by Craig Silliman, Verizon executive vice president-chief administrative officer. “Under this agreement reached with the FAA, we will lift the voluntary limitations on our 5G network deployment around airports in a staged approach over the coming months meaning even more consumers and businesses will benefit from the tremendous capabilities of 5G technology.”

Through close coordination with the FAA over the last several months, we have developed a more tailored approach to controlling signal strength around runways that allows us to activate more towers and increase signal strength,” an AT&T spokesperson emailed. “Though our FCC licenses allow us to fully deploy much-needed C-Band spectrum right now, we have chosen in good faith to implement these more tailored precautionary measures so that airlines have additional time to retrofit equipment,” the spokesperson said.

The approach agreed to by stakeholders requires operators of regional aircraft with the radio altimeters most susceptible to interference to retrofit them with filters by the end of 2022. “This work has already begun and will continue on an expedited basis,” the FAA said. The FAA said it also has worked with the carriers to identify the airports at the least risk.

Filters and replacement units for the mainline commercial fleet should be available on a schedule that would permit the work to be largely completed by July 2023,” the FAA said. “After that time, the wireless companies expect to operate their networks in urban areas with minimal restrictions.” The agency said radio-altimeter companies have worked “at an unprecedented pace” with Embraer, Boeing, Airbus and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to develop and test filters and installation kits for aircraft: “Customers are receiving the first kits now. In most cases, the kits can be installed in a few hours at airline maintenance facilities.”

Throughout this process, the FAA will work with both industries to track the pace of the radio altimeter retrofits while also working with the wireless companies to relax mitigations around key airports in carefully considered phases,” the agency said.