Verizon and AT&T’s FAA deal expands C-band 5G, with restrictions until July 2023

The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, says it expects AT&T and Verizon to be able to more or less fully roll out their 5G C-band networks by July 2023, after multiple delays due to concerns about the radio waves affecting vital safety equipment on plans. The plan, which the FAA says is the result of collaboration between regulators, carriers, and the aviation industry, will allow carriers to turn on their equipment in “carefully considered phases” as airlines work to retrofit their plans with equipment that will mitigate any potential interference from cellular signals.

As AT&T and Verizon were turning on their next-gen networks in January, the FAA protested and the carriers agreed to create buffer zones around dozens of airports in the US. The agreement was only meant to extend until July 2022. But at the time, it wasn’t clear how the problem would be resolved by then. Now, the carriers have agreed to keep limiting their C-band in certain areas for another year.

In to statement to TheVergeVerizon chief administrative officer Craig Silliman said:

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.

AT&T spokesperson Alex Byers said:

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. 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. We appreciate the FAA’s support of this approach, and we will continue to work with the aviation community as we move toward the expiration of all such voluntary measures by next summer.

As a refresher, Verizon and AT&T’s rollout of their new 5G spectrum, also known as C-band, turned into a complete mess earlier this year after airlines and regulators warned that the signals could interfere with airplanes’ radar altimeters. The rollout wasn’t (or shouldn’t have been) a surprise to regulators — the industry had been gearing up for it for months ahead of time, and the FAA had made multiple agreements with carriers to delay it. However, when the time came to switch on the networks, there was a scramble to change plans, and the carriers ended up begrudgingly agreeing to the buffer zones around airports.

These changes weren’t particularly great for carriers. Being able to use C-band is what lets carriers make 5G truly a step up from LTE in places where mmWave simply isn’t practical (read: most places). That’s why AT&T and Verizon spent billions of dollars obtaining the rights to use the spectrum and setting up the equipment. Thanks to the exclusion zones, though, customers living around airports haven’t gotten to be apart of the otherwise impressive rollout.

Even with the mitigations, some airlines were still affected, and there are still several airports in the US where only 81 percent of aircraft models are cleared to land in weather conditions where a radar altimeter may be vital. This was despite the work the FAA put in to make sure that the most popular jets were safe to fly in most conditions, even at airports where C-band had been deployed. (It is worth noting that these efforts haven’t been as much of a help to smaller regional airlineswhich were hit harder by the restrictions.) In a House hearing about the hubbub in February, FAA administrator Steve Dickson said that new safety standards for altimeters wouldn’t be in place until early 2023.

The FAA’s map of airports with 100 percent clearance (green) and 81 percent clearance (yellow). Missing airports lack the necessary runway systems or aren’t in 5G deployment areas.
Image: FAA

The fact that the agency is now predicting that carriers and major airlines will largely be able to move forward by July 2023 does speak to the fact that companies and regulators have been working at an accelerated pace to fix the issue. It’s also good to see that there’s an actual, as Silliman put it, “accelerated and defined” plan in place now — I didn’t get the sense there was one before.

There are still a few questions up in the air: the FAA’s statement doesn’t make it clear who’s paying for equipment to be retrofitted onto the plans or which areas will be the first (and last) to get the C-band rollout. It is clear, however, that everyone’s working together to get this particular issue sorted out.

Correction June 17th, 4:50PM ET: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the name of an AT&T spokesperson. We regret the mistake.

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