FAA Lists 50 Airports Exempt From New 5G Rollout


These airports will have a temporary buffer zones to ensure airplane altimeters are protected, pursuant to an agreement between telecommunication companies and the government.

Following the dramatic back-and-forth between Verizon, AT&T, the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Transportation over the safety of 5G deployment last week, the Federal Aviation Administration formally listed 50 airports that will be exempt from the new C-band service. 

These airports, spanning both coasts and several landlocked states, will have buffer zones that exclude the new 5G service set to roll out on Jan. 19. This was part of the deal struck between telecommunications companies Verizon and AT&T and Transportation to ensure the new network speed won’t disrupt air traffic. 

“The agency sought input from the aviation community where the proposed buffer zones would help reduce the risk of disruption,” FAA officials wrote on Jan. 7. “Traffic volume, the number of low-visibility days and geographic location factored into the selection.”

The temporary buffer zones will ensure the final 20 seconds of a given flight landing at one of the 50 airports will not see any altimeter interference related to new network frequencies near airport antennas. 

Officials have expressed concern over new 5G technology’s impact on airplane altimeters, which use radio signals from airports to measure an aircraft’s altitude. Leaders at Transportation, including Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Stephen Dickson, penned a letter to Verizon and AT&T executives last week asking for another delay in the nationwide 5G rollout to study its effects further.

Initially, the request was swiftly denied by CEOs at both companies. By Jan. 4, however, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg and AT&T CEO John Stankey changed their minds and agreed to a delay.

“The wireless companies agreed to turn off transmitters and make other adjustments near these airports for six months to minimize potential 5G interference with sensitive aircraft instruments used in low-visibility landings,” the FAA stated. “The FAA continues to work with the aerospace manufacturers and wireless companies to make sure 5G is safely deployed and to limit the risk of flight disruptions at all airports.”

The exemption zones surrounding the 50 airports will remain in effect until July 5. 

The saga between federal agencies and telecommunications companies highlighted the struggle the U.S. has seen in deploying 5G technology. Transportation has raised issues surrounding the use of a high speed 3.7–4.2 GHz spectrum band associated with 5G C-band networks since 2020

By contrast, officials at the FCC maintained that the C-band technology would not interfere with air traffic operations, which Commissioner Brendan Carr outlined to Buttigieg in a scathing letter

“After detailed analysis, the FCC determined that the comprehensive rules and regulations it adopted for C-Band operations will protect aeronautical operations from harmful interference,” Carr wrote. 

While some third party reports have called on the FCC to clarify its spectrum management processes with other federal agencies, the nonprofit Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics published a report in October 2020 detailing the “major risk” of 5G communications with 3.7–3.98 GHz band poses for U.S. aviation operations.