5G C-band rollout at US airports slowed over radio altimeter safety fears

Well, they did say from July, now they really mean from July 2023

America's aviation watchdog has said the rollout of 5G C-band coverage near US airports won't fully start until next year, delaying some travelers' access to better cellular broadband at crowded terminals.

Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement this month that its discussions with wireless carriers "have identified a path that will continue to enable aviation and 5G C-band wireless to safely co-exist."

5G C-band operates between 3.7-3.98GHz, near the 4.2-4.4GHz band used by radio altimeters that are jolly useful for landing planes in limited visibility. There is or was a fear that these cellular signals, such as from cell towers close to airports, could bleed into the frequencies used by aircraft and cause radio altimeters to display an incorrect reading. C-band technology, which promises faster mobile broadband, was supposed to roll out nationwide on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile US's networks, but some deployments have been paused near airports due to these concerns. 

C-band frequencies allocated to cellular providers are frankly unlikely to have an effect on airline safety. Still, the FAA said it has a job to do: maintain the US' reputation as having the safest aviation "in the world."

"If there's the possibility of a risk to the flying public, we are obligated to restrict the relevant flight activity until we can prove it is safe," the FAA said.

Earlier this year, the FAA and telcos agreed to delay the rollout near airports until July while affected parties figured out how to resolve any potential interference. Now rather than gradually rollout C-band 5G around airports with a target date of July 2022, it's now July 2023.

From now until then, cellular networks will continue extending their coverage with, as the FAA put it, "some level of voluntary mitigations" to cut the risk of any interference. And come next July, the wireless giants can offer 5G "with minimal restrictions."

While 90 percent of the US commercial fleet has been cleared to use radio altimeters for landing in low visibility near C-band transmissions, the remaining affected aircraft need filters on their equipment to block the frequencies. A phased approach scheduled for the remainder of 2022 will see regional aircraft retrofitted, which has already begun and the FAA said will be sped up.

As for commercial jets, "filters and replacement units for the mainline commercial fleet should be available on a schedule that would permit the work to be largely completed by July 2023," the FAA said. And as part of that approach, C-band cellular carriers will slow their rollouts around airports for another year.

Verizon and AT&T both voluntarily agreed to do so, the FAA said, and statements from the companies support that. "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," said Verizon EVP and CAO Craig Silliman.

AT&T, on the other hand, said it's well within its rights to deploy "much-needed C-band spectrum right now," but won't. "We have chosen in good faith to implement these more tailored precautionary measures so that airlines have additional time to retrofit equipment." ®

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