FAA issues 5G warning, cites C-band ‘progress’

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a statement Tuesday addressing the “unsafe condition” of altimeters used in flying planes, citing the effects of 5G C-band.

The FAA deemed it necessary to warn pilots, although it notes that it doesn’t expect actual C-band deployment to begin until January 5, 2022, which represents a one-month delay agreed upon by AT&T and Verizon.

The wording of the documentation sounds ominous. “This AD [airworthiness directive] was prompted by a determination that radio altimeters cannot be relied upon to perform their intended function if they experience interference from wireless broadband operations in the 3.7-3.98 GHz frequency band (5G C-Band),” the FAA said. “These limitations could prevent dispatch of flights to certain locations with low visibility and could also result in flight diversions.”

A spokesperson at the aviation agency wasn’t available for comment.

This is how the FAA summarized its action: “The FAA believes the expansion of 5G and aviation will safely co-exist. Today, we took an important step toward that goal by issuing two airworthiness directives to provide a framework and to gather more information to avoid potential effects on aviation safety equipment. The FAA is working closely with the Federal Communications Commission and wireless companies, and has made progress toward safely implementing the 5G expansion. We are confident with ongoing collaboration we will reach this shared goal.”

The phrase “making progress” seems to be making the rounds.

According to the FCC, the communications agency “continues to make progress working with the FAA and private entities to advance the safe and swift deployment of 5G networks,” as evidenced by the technical mitigations wireless carriers adopted last month. “We look forward to updated guidance from the FAA in the coming weeks that reflects these developments,” an FCC spokesperson told Fierce.

AT&T and Verizon agreed to postpone their C-band deployments until January 5, 2022, about a month later than originally planned, to accommodate the FAA’s recently re-emerged concerns. They also agreed to lower the power on C-band gear around airports for six months while more study gets done.

“We share the FAA’s confidence that we can have both safe flights and robust and reliable 5G service. Despite no credible evidence of a risk to aviation safety, U.S. wireless providers have voluntarily put in place the world’s most comprehensive set of temporary protections. We are working closely with the aviation industry and are on track to join the nearly 40 countries safely using 5G in the C-Band in January,” CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said in a statement Tuesday.

In its statement, Verizon noted that C-band spectrum will be the backbone of next-generation 5G networks here and around the world.

“Air safety is of paramount importance, but there is no evidence that 5G operations using C-band spectrum pose any risk to aviation safety, as the real-world experience in dozens of countries already using this spectrum for 5G confirms,” the New York/New Jersey-based carrier said. 

RELATED: Verizon’s Ed Chan is optimistic about deploying C-band in 2022

“While the new directives suggest the FAA plans to further analyze this issue, we are confident that it will conclude – as the FCC already found – that 5G over C Band poses no risk to air safety. Today's FAA directives also do not take into account the precautionary measures that Verizon and AT&T recently agreed to that will provide additional protections around airports and helipads as the FAA completes its analysis,” Verizon concluded, adding that it’s on track to launch 5G using C-band next month and to reach 100 million Americans with this network in the first quarter of 2022.

WIA President and CEO Jonathan Adelstein said the wireless industry is going above and beyond in its voluntary mitigation efforts to address “unfounded concerns about aviation safety.”

After an extensive review process, “the FCC found that 5G can operate safely in the C-band – a finding reinforced by real-world deployments and testing across the globe. We agree with the FAA's contention that the expansion of 5G and safe aviation can co-exist and will continue to work with them toward that goal," Adelstein said in a statement.

RELATED: AT&T leader says C-band power limit impacts are overblown

Asked for comment, AT&T referred Fierce to the FCC. But during an investor conference on Monday, AT&T CEO John Stankey said his engineers are anxious to turn that spectrum up. “We’re ready to go,” he said.

“I’m not worried about the issue with the FAA,” Stankey said. “Frankly, I think the United States has been incredibly responsible about how it’s going about thinking about C-band planning. In fact, our posture on that, given the guard bands that have been put in place versus other areas around the globe, is a more conservative stance. And we know that, that C-band is up and running in other parts of the globe without incident, and there’s planes flying and landing every day, many of the same planes that fly overseas that the FAA is talking about right now.”