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Can US Aviation Restrictions Avert 5G C-Band Interference?

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The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) seems to have averted a collision course with the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) and various telecom advocacy groups by outlining a series of flight restrictions that will take effect from January. The safety-first approach aims to mitigate the risks apprehended due to the likely interference of 5G waves within the C-Band spectrum with certain flight operations.

The FAA has raised concerns that the commercial launch of the C-band wireless service in the 3.7-3.98 GHz frequency band could cause the airwaves to interfere with radar or radio altimeter signals that measure the distance between the aircraft and ground. Data from these devices are fed to the cockpit safety system that helps pilots gauge the air safety metrics and prevent mid-air collision, avoid crashes and ensure a safe landing.

In order to avert any potential disruption in essential safety sensors, the FAA has issued certain flight restrictions that would prevent pilots from operating the automatic landing option and other cockpit systems during inclement weather conditions. Although the directives are primarily intended to make 5G expansion and aviation coexist without compromising passenger safety, some airline industry groups have raised concerns. They feel that these would significantly impact air cargo and commercial air travel at night and in adverse weather conditions when visibility is relatively poor and automatic landing gears are essential.  

On its part, the FCC has worked in unison with FAA to conduct several safety studies. The U.S. telecom industry has, however, argued that the 5G airwaves within the C-Band spectrum would not cause any hindrance to normal aviation safety standards. Citing data from wireless services currently in place in several other countries, it observed that FAA’s apprehensions lacked concrete evidence and were merely blown out of proportion. However, two leading telecom firms — Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ - Free Report) and AT&T Inc. (T - Free Report) — have voluntarily decided to heed FAA’s pleas for restraint and deferred the commercial launch of their C-band 5G wireless service to January 2022. The carriers have also agreed to minimize the power consumption of C-Band base stations around airports till Jul 6, 2022, as both the industry regulators seek to amicably resolve the issue.

For the record, Verizon was the largest bidder with $45.5 billion worth of bids in the FCC-led C-Band auction for mid-band airwaves that generated about $81.2 billion in gross proceeds, followed by AT&T at $23.4 billion. The auction offered 280 MHz of spectrum for potential 5G deployments over the next few years. While Verizon secured 3,511 of the 5,684 licenses up for grabs, AT&T claimed 1,621.

By virtue of its auction bids, Verizon has secured an average of 161 MHz of C-band nationwide spectrum. The C-Band offers significant bandwidth with better propagation characteristics for optimum coverage in both rural and urban areas than mmWave, which has a short range and requires a high density of sites to achieve coverage. Consequently, it is deemed a prized asset for carriers like Verizon and AT&T that lack considerable mid-band spectrum holdings.

AT&T aims to bring the power of 5G to businesses and communities across the nation. The deployment of 5G in the C-Band spectrum enables it to better provide 5G services to subscribers, with the best mix of network coverage and capacity. As the first carrier in the industry, AT&T has unveiled its 5G policy framework that hinges on three pillars — mobile 5G, fixed wireless and edge computing. For a seamless transition among Wi-Fi, LTE and 5G services, the company intends to deploy a standards-based nationwide mobile 5G network. Its 5G service entails the utilization of millimeter-wave spectrum for deployment in dense pockets. In suburban and rural areas, it intends to deploy 5G on mid- and low-band spectrum holdings. It believes that as the 5G ecosystem evolves, customers can experience significant enhancements in coverage, speeds and devices.

Meanwhile, leading U.S. House Democrats have urged the FCC to consider the gravity of the issue raised by the FAA and sought an immediate restraining order for the deployment of the C-Band for wireless use until a thorough risk assessment is conducted. Although the FCC did not comment, a coalition of industry trade groups has pointed out that further delay in the rollout of 5G technology would likely hamper the country’s economic growth.

Amid this backdrop, FAA’s flight restrictions appear to be a winning formula for both sectors as leisure travel aims to regain its firm footing with an uptick in demand from the pandemic-induced adversities.


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