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Carriers Set for Phased 5G Rollout Near Airports With FAA Deal

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The aviation industry appears to have avoided a potential stalemate with the telecom sector as two leading operators agreed to voluntarily delay the deployment of 5G airwaves near some airports until July 2023. Both Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ - Free Report) and AT&T Inc. (T - Free Report) have inked a deal with the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) for a phased rollout of their C-band 5G wireless service near airports to mitigate aviation operating risks.

The bone of contention relates 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 the ground. Data from these devices are fed to the cockpit safety system that helps pilots gauge the air safety metrics and prevent mid-air collisions, avoid crashes and ensure a safe landing.

To avert any potential disruption in essential safety sensors, the FAA had issued certain flight restrictions that prevented pilots from operating the automatic landing option and other cockpit systems during inclement weather conditions. The FAA followed it up with a ‘Safety Alert for Operators’ in December 2021. The alert included recommended actions in the form of ”Notice To Air Missions,” primarily based on previously issued restrictions.

Although the directives were primarily intended to make 5G expansion and aviation coexist without compromising passenger safety, it significantly affected air cargo and commercial air travel at most of the biggest airports and highest traffic destinations across the country. This led to intense negotiations between the carriers and the FAA to seek a mutually agreeable solution. Although both AT&T and Verizon had rejected any broader restrictions on the usage of the C-Band spectrum, they pledged not to deploy 5G and depowered wireless towers around airports until July this year. The firms have now voluntarily extended these restrictions till July 2023.  

The FAA, in unison with the carriers, has identified certain less vulnerable airports where 5G could be deployed without disrupting flight operations. In other airports susceptible to potential interference, the FAA has asked aircraft operators to retrofit their planes with filters on radio altimeters and replacement units to eradicate the chances of any disruptions in normal flight operations. Although Airlines for America, an industry trade group of flight operators, has raised concerns about the project's feasibility, with a significant number of its member fleet of 4,800 aircraft requiring to be retrofitted, the FAA appears poised to complete the changeover with timely delivery of the retrofit products.

Amid all the cacophony, AT&T and Verizon have indicated to gradually do away with all mitigations after the deadline as they aim to capitalize on the immense 5G potential and generate healthy ROI. 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.

Verizon has secured an average of 161 MHz of C-band nationwide spectrum through its auction bids. 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.

It remains to be seen how the saga unfolds in the near future with the success of the aviation sector and the telecom sector hanging by a thread.

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