AT&T and Verizon Take on FAA over C-Band 5G Mobile Service 

By: Andrew Regitsky

It’s a story too big to ignore. The unprecedented dispute between AT&T and Verizon and the aviation industry led by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the airline carrier association – Airlines for America (AFA). The battle is whether the wireless providers should be allowed to commence C-Band 5G mobile service around America’s large airports as planned or whether they must either avoid providing 5G service or reduce service around the airports for the foreseeable future. Some even argue that 5G should be delayed indefinitely until the airlines upgrade the equipment on all their planes, which would be extremely expensive and time consuming.

The crux of the argument made by the airlines is that radio interference from 5G mobile service around airports would cause altimeters in planes to malfunction resulting in pilots unable to measure the altitude of their planes. The AFA made its case in an Emergency Petition for Stay filed with the FCC:

This interference will cause irreparable harm and jeopardize the function of critical aircraft safety systems, which in turn threatens to divert or cancel thousands of flights every day, thus disrupting millions of passenger reservations, causing substantial disruptions for air crews, further interrupting the U.S. and global supply chains, and eroding the safety margin that the industry and the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) have worked so hard to achieve. (Airlines for America, Emergency Petition to Stay Initiation of 5G Operation At Certain Designated Airport Locations, filed December 30, 2021, at p. 1).

As heated as this has now become, this dispute is not new. It began in 2018 in FCC Docket 18-122, when the airlines initially claimed that mobile service using the Spectrum C-Band around airports would be a danger to flight safety and would cause an untold number of flights to be cancelled or rerouted. The Commission disagreed. In a 2020 Order, the Commission concluded that its rules would fully protect aeronautical services in the 4.2-4.4 GHz band (C-Band) of the Spectrum.

Despite their concerns, AT&T and Verizon assert that between the FCC Order in February 2020 and November 2021, the aviation industry did nothing to upgrade their flight equipment or otherwise improve the situation.

Nonetheless, the FCC encouraged the aviation community to use the nearly two years before C-Band deployment to upgrade any altimeters that might not be properly designed to filter out frequencies far removed from the 4.2-4.4 GHz altimeter band. Inexplicably, the FAA and the aviation industry apparently did nothing following the February 2020 order or even after the C-Band auction closed in January 2021. In fact, it was not until November 2, 2021 that the FAA even issued a notice to begin collecting data about altimeters from the aviation industry (AT&T and Verizon January 2, 2022 letter to Pete Buttigieg Secretary U.S. Department of Transportation, and Stephen Dickson, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration U.S. Department of Transportation.

At the request of the U.S. government, the telecom providers delayed the introduction of their 5G service for a month, from December 5, 2021, to January 5, 2022. On December 31, 2021, the Department of Transportation asked for a further delay. The carriers initially said no.

At its core, your proposed framework asks that we agree to transfer oversight of our companies’ multi-billion-dollar investment in 50 unnamed metropolitan areas representing the lion’s share of the U.S. population to the FAA for an undetermined number of months or years. Even worse, the proposal is directed to only two companies, regardless of the terms of licenses auctioned and granted, and to the exception of every other company and industry within the purview of the FCC. Agreeing to your proposal would not only be an unprecedented and unwarranted circumvention of the due process and checks and balances carefully crafted in the structure of our democracy, but an irresponsible abdication of the operating control required to deploy world-class and globally competitive communications networks that are every bit as essential to our country’s economic vitality, public safety and national interests as the airline industry.(Id.).

Instead, the telecom providers stated that they would implement radio exclusion zones already used with the C-Band around airports in France and at the same time took a swipe at the airline industry.

As you know, U.S. aircraft currently fly in and out of France every day with thousands of U.S. passengers and with the full approval of the FAA. As a result, France provides a real-world example of an operating environment where 5G and aviation safety already co-exist. The laws of physics are the same in the United States and France. If U.S. airlines are permitted to operate flights every day in France, then the same operating conditions should allow them to do so in the United States.(Id.).

AT&T and Verizon also make clear what they believe the real agenda is of the airline industry. In their response to an Emergency Petition for Stay filed by the AFA, the carriers noted that the AFA and the Aerospace Industry Association (AIA) reveal their true motives.

As an initial matter, AT&T and Verizon welcome AIA’s long-overdue acknowledgment that its concern relates as much to the “economic vitality of the aviation industry” as to any supposed safety issue. That phrase lays bare AIA’s real agenda. It wants to hold the C-Band hostage until the wireless industry agrees to cover the costs of upgrading any obsolete altimeters that, in the view of some aviation interests, do an abnormally poor job of filtering signals in bands far removed from the 4.2-4.4 GHz aeronautical altimetry band. But this Commission made clear almost two years ago that it “expect[ed] the aviation industry to take account of” the C-Band operations that would launch at scale nearly two years later “and take appropriate action, if necessary, to ensure protection” of these altimeters. (AT&T and Verizon December 31, 2021 letter to FCC, Docket 18-122, at pp. 1-2.

On January 3, 2022, the carriers reversed position, agreeing to another two-week extension until January 19, 2022. Supposedly this will provide the parties with more time to reach an agreement, and the FAA said it would not seek any further delays. However, how the situation will change in two weeks after not changing for two years remains to be seen. What cannot be disputed is that this is a severe blow to the FCC. Its power has been usurped by another part of the government – the FAA – which did not accept the FCC’s 5G conclusions. Will the Commission have any credibility when it comes to 6G and beyond?