The DOT wants to tap the brakes on 5G C-band rollout

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With only days to go before Verizon and AT&T roll out their new 5G C-Band, the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a letter to the two companies requesting a two-week pause while it works with the FAA to protect airport operations.

The move comes just weeks after the FAA and some U.S. airlines warned that 5G C-band could hamper flight operations, even affecting airplane radio altimeters.

5G C-Band, which Verizon and AT&T paid $70 billion for in a spectrum auction, is considered crucial to carriers delivering on promises of 5G. Known as a mid-band spectrum (between 3.7 – 3.98 GHz), 5G C-Band, which was previously used by, among others, satellite companies, covers more area with fewer towers and at higher speeds. In other words, it sounds like the 5G we've been waiting for.

In the letter penned by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to AT&T CEO John T. Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, they acknowledge the investment in 5G-C made by both companies but caution:

"...the economic stakes for the aviation industry and the disruptions the traveling public would face from the commercial launch of C-Band service on January 5 are significant, particularly with the ongoing stress and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic."

The letter notes that the impending rollout could be particularly problematic during "periods of low visibility and inclement weather," where it could lead to the air travel industry diverting, disrupting, and even canceling flights.

5G vs. the airlines: a brief timeline

Jan. 28:  FAA greenlights 5G at the airport The FAA's ongoing battle with Verizon and AT&T over ultra-fast 5G C-band deployment around airports is finally ending: On Friday, the FAA announced an agreement on new steps that allow yet more 5G towers to operate safely around key airports.

Jan. 13:  FAA reveals exactly what 5G will do to airplanes The FAA is providing the airline industry with ‘Notice to Air’ missions that detail how 5G networks could potentially affect aircraft equipment, notably altimeters that rely on frequencies located between 4.2 and 4.4GHz.

Jan. 10:  50 airports get 5G "buffer zones" Airports in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and more are covered by the new restrictions, with some airports excluded because they do not permit low-visibility landings or because 5G towers are not close enough to cause concern.

In a separate statement, the FAA said it's, "working with the aviation and wireless industries to find a solution that allows 5G C-band and aviation to safely coexist. While that work is underway, the FAA alerted operators that Notices to Air Missions (NOTAMs) may be issued to restrict operations in areas where 5G interference is possible."

What the DOT and FAA want is time to identify buffer zones around major airports to protect these flight operations. "This will allow for 5G C-band to deploy around these priority airports on a rolling basis, such that C-Band planned locations will be activated by the end of March 2022, barring unforeseen technical challenges or new safety concerns," adds the letter.

The proposed two-week pause is specifically to identify the airports that need these buffer zones.

Verizon and AT&T have insisted that the 5G C-band poses no risk to airline operations. However, they did agree last November to reduce power coming from all 5G C-band stations, including those near airports. The agreement is set to expire later this year. The companies have yet to comment on this new request.

That station power agreement came shortly after the two carriers agreed to pause deployment until January 5, 2022, while the FAA conducted an air safety review. That's the date the DOT and FAA are now seeking to adjust, if only by a couple of weeks.

Assuming the FAA can complete its work in two weeks, most consumers are unlikely to notice this delay. However, since many modern smartphones, including the iPhone 13 and Samsung Galaxy s21, already support 5G C-Band, there is a chance that AT&T and Verizon customers near these 5G C-Band stations could start noticing improved 5G speed and reliability before the spring.

Lance Ulanoff
US Editor in Chief

A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.