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'Further Delays' Possible

C-Band Questions Remain After Latest Agreement to Turn on Band Near Airports

Industry experts said some questions remain after last week’s announcement that “key stakeholders in the aviation and wireless industries” agreed to a revised rollout of C-band spectrum around some airports by Verizon and AT&T (see 2206170070). Airlines for America (A4A), which represents major airlines, already questioned the pact in a letter to the FAA.

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The two carriers could have full deployment held up for more than a year in some areas. The agreement came just before the next C-band milestone, July 5, when the two carriers would have been allowed to turn up power levels around airports under an agreement that allowed Verizon to start turning on the C-band in January (see 2201200070).

One big question is how quickly airlines will be able to install filters to protect radio altimeters from potential interference, experts said.

To quote Yogi Berra ‘it ain’t over till it’s over,’” emailed Recon Analytics’ Roger Entner. “The FAA and the mobile operators have made significant progress, but there are still questions around the installation of altimeters in 4,800 planes by mid 2023,” he said: “Let’s hope that sanity will prevail and that people recognize that what works in the rest of the world also works in the US.”

A continuing concern is that altimeter installations won’t be completed “in the specified time period and pressure will build for further delays next year,” said spectrum consultant Tim Farrar. Another unknown is the role that could be played by whoever replaces acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen, he said: “The current acting administrator has taken a very different approach to the prior one, and that could change again depending on the attitude of the future permanent head.”

"It is hard to think anything regarding the C-band is final at this point,” said American Action Forum Technology and Innovation Policy Director Jeffrey Westling. “The carriers agreed to this new plan with a couple of weeks until the deadline, and it seems to be a more concrete plan to roll out in different markets over time,” he said. Westling said the carriers probably wouldn’t have agreed if they didn’t think the agreement was final. “We will have to wait and see though because the airlines still have many altimeters that need upgrading, especially the small feeder airlines which may not have the resources of the larger airlines,” he said.

The agreement should have “the positive result of winding down the controversy over wireless use of the spectrum around airports,” said Free State Foundation Director-Policy Studies Seth Cooper. Carriers have “gone beyond what is required of them in trying to accommodate aviation interests,” he said: “Now that there is a 5G C-band agreement reflecting the good faith efforts of the wireless carriers and bearing the imprimatur of the FAA, unfounded claims about signal interference can finally be put to rest.”

Lightshed’s Walter Piecyk said investors aren’t tracking the latest C-band developments. “5G has bigger challenges in finding new revenue generating applications than it does with the network limitations that resulted from the bureaucratic squabbles enabled by a lack of cohesive leadership at many of our federal agencies,” he said.

The implications for the carriers are limited, agreed New Street’s Blair Levin. The challenge was rolling out 5G to keep up with T-Mobile, Levin emailed. “That there are some limitations in some discrete areas is not going to cause consumers to choose T-Mobile over” Verizon or AT&T, he emailed: “While VZ and T are not getting the full benefit of what they paid for, and they have been forced to bear certain costs they didn't anticipate, I don't think it is material to their long-term economic performance.”

The long-term lesson should be that “federal agencies and the FCC need to engage with each other at the granular level as early in the process as possible as new bands are identified for repurposing and auction,” said Cooley’s Robert McDowell: “This costly mess was a needless and unforced error, and let’s hope policymakers have learned a constructive lesson.” McDowell said the agreement should help other carriers who also bought C-band licenses. “Hopefully, the bad surprises are all behind us,” he said.