Verizon, AT&T navigate C-band chaos in 2022

Headlines from a year ago sum up the drama that revolved around the C-band. “Airlines Brace for Flight Restrictions in 5G Standoff” declared the Wall Street Journal on December 19, 2021. “Aviation Chaos Over 5G Wireless Rollout Exposes Feuds Brewing for Years” reported Reuters on January 5, 2022. Then came “Verizon, AT&T kick off C-band amid aviation overhang” from Fierce Wireless on January 19, 2022.

There were several tense months around this time last year, as airlines were starting to see travel return for the holidays after the pandemic-induced lockdown. But the aviation industry was up in arms about what AT&T and Verizon were about to do: turn on their C-band spectrum.

Verizon spent more than $45 billion, before clearing costs, to obtain C-band spectrum in the FCC’s auction, while AT&T spent about $23.4 billion. To tell them they weren’t going to be able to use that valuable mid-band spectrum that the government sold to them  – well, excuse the pun, but that wasn’t going to fly.

Airline and aviation industry officials had warned the FCC that C-band signals could interfere with altimeters, which are used during take-offs and landings, especially in bad weather. But the FCC did not see it as a problem and approved a plan for relocating satellite users in the band, determining that a 220-megahertz guard band provided sufficient protection. The spectrum was auctioned to mobile carriers, and it was up to the aviation community to retrofit their planes with the proper and more modern altimeters. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

In the end, Verizon and AT&T agreed to voluntary modifications that included lower power transmitters and buffer zones around airports, giving the aviation industry more time to upgrade their altimeter equipment. President Joe Biden thanked the heads of the Department of Transportation (DoT), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and FCC for coming to an agreement.  

Trigger for change

The C-band fiasco also put a huge spotlight on conflicts between different government agencies when it comes to spectrum. There have been prior long-simmering disputes, such as Ligado, GPS and the Department of Defense (DoD), but the C-band debacle was more immediate in terms of the “life-or-death” theme.

In February, the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) kicked off an initiative to improve U.S. government coordination on spectrum management. The NTIA manages federal spectrum, like that used by the DoD, and the FCC oversees the commercial use of spectrum. The two said they would use this new initiative to improve their ability to address “gaps in government coordination.”

One of the problems blamed for contributing to the C-band standoff was the FCC’s lack of receiver standards. While the FCC regulates transmitters, it has not done the same for receivers. To address that, the FCC’s  Office of Engineering and Technology in April opened a Notice of Inquiry seeking answers to all kinds of questions on how to move forward.

More to come

Earlier this year, New Street Research policy analyst Blair Levin summed up the C-band dispute, saying “All’s well that ends well.”

The FAA/FCC dispute was less entertaining than a Shakespeare play, but it did have the benefit of a similar happy ending in which most of the players won something, the side with the best facts and arguments won the most, and, in the context of D.C. decision making, the resolution came remarkably quickly, Levin said in a report for investors.

Of course, it’s not entirely over yet. Another batch of C-band spectrum becomes available in 2023, and carriers like UScellular are in regular talks with the FAA about their C-band deployments. But the skies are friendlier than they were a year ago.