Verizon, AT&T kick off C-band amid aviation overhang

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg hit the ground running today, appearing on TV broadcast programs to celebrate the launch of Verizon’s 3.7 GHz C-band spectrum despite the doom and gloom predicted by the airline industry.

Pressed to answer questions about why the wireless carriers – namely Verizon and AT&T – were stuck in this unenviable position, Vestberg dodged them on CNBC, deferring to airline or government authorities.

"You should ask them," he said. "For us, I think we have done everything right,” with extensive research having been done before Verizon bought the spectrum.

Some international flights coming into the U.S. were canceled, but domestic flights were mostly delayed due to weather-related problems rather than getting blamed on C-band, according to this PCMag article. Airlines had threatened earlier in the week that “chaos” would erupt if C-band deployments were allowed to happen within a certain radius of airports.

RELATED: Airlines warn of 5G C-band upheavals

Both AT&T and Verizon agreed to extend their buffer zones around airports, but the flight schedules appeared to take time to catch up with what was happening on the ground. The altimeter flight instrument is at the center of the debate. Weeks ago, it appeared that the airlines wanted the wireless carriers to pay for altimeter upgrades, although the messaging hasn’t always been that straightforward.

Getting their money’s worth

AT&T’s introduction of C-band today begins in limited parts of eight metro areas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami. AT&T plans to reach 200 million people by the end of 2023 with C-band. Consumers with C-band devices – which include Apple, Samsung and Google Pixel devices – will see a “5G+” indicator on their phones.

Verizon’s "5G Ultra" launch, combined with its millimeter wave-based 5G, includes 1,700 cities. Verizon said its 5G Home and 5G Business Internet services are now in over 900 cities. (As of January, Verizon’s mmWave was in parts of 87 cities.) 

RELATED: Verizon readies 5G C-band launch, limits deployment near airports

Verizon spent considerably more than AT&T – over $45 billion – on its C-band spectrum and AT&T spent about $23.4 billion. Subsequently, Verizon was a no-show in the 3.45 GHz auction whereas AT&T was the big spender there, walking away with 1,624 licenses after spending more than $9.1 billion.

Clearly, the C-band launch is a much bigger deal for Verizon than AT&T. 

“For Verizon, this is really huge,” said wireless industry analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. “Verizon has always traveled on the network superiority/best network message. That has disappeared over time... Here, they’re closing the gap, and closing the gap quickly. Verizon really needs this.”

RELATED: Verizon gives sneak peek of pre-commercial C-band in LA

Indeed, Verizon kicked off today’s C-band launch with great fanfare. AT&T didn’t have the same kind of schedule for its executives on the media circuit, but it plans to host a virtual event with celebrities on January 24.

As for the run-in with airlines over fears of interference, the wireless industry has been battling that for months, pointing to C-band deployments in other countries and to the FCC’s 200-MHz guard band that was deemed as sufficient protection. Yet the FAA started publishing impact notices last week and warnings from the airlines lasted into this week.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, also appeared on CNBC today and blamed the Biden Administration for dropping the ball. “You can dispute whether this is a good or bad outcome” for Verizon or AT&T in terms of the specifics, “but to me it’s the broader message that this sends, which is American competitiveness and leadership needs competent decision-making. We didn’t see that here,” Carr said.

Carr also noted that it’s a similar situation to what happened with the 24 GHz band with weather predictions and 5.9 GHz for automotive. “It’s hard to see an end game here” when it comes to who’s making the spectrum decisions, but someone needs to be the “adult in the room” and stand up for science rather than hysteria and “misinformation” campaigns, he said.

Entner blamed both the Trump and Biden administrations. “This is a huge failure of government leadership and it’s an ongoing saga,” he said. “This problem should have been fixed and addressed years ago. It’s a failure of coordination... The current administration inherited the problem, and then it festered.”