Telecoms Agree To Delay 5G Rollout Amid Government Safety Concerns

Dusan Stankovic/Getty Images

Following the saga between telecommunications giants and multiple government agencies, the Transportation Department secured a brief delay of the nationwide 5G rollout.

After a heated back and forth between telecommunication carriers Verizon and AT&T and the Transportation Department over a delay of Wednesday’s 5G C-band rollout, both companies have agreed to pause the new network deployment—at least for a couple weeks.

The request from Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration was rooted in concerns over the C-band frequency’s potential ability to disrupt radio signals between airports and aircraft. 

Initially, both Verizon and AT&T refused to delay the rollout, citing thorough safety research and large quantities of capital already sunk into the pending deployment. 

Late Monday evening, both companies reached an agreement with DOT and decided to halt the C-band rollout for a brief period. 

“At Secretary Buttigieg's request, we have voluntarily agreed to one additional two-week delay of our deployment of C-Band 5G services,” an AT&T spokesperson told Nextgov. “We also remain committed to the six-month protection zone mitigations we outlined in our letter. We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues.”

President Joe Biden weighed in on the delay on Tuesday, doubling down on his administration’s commitment to build a solid 5G infrastructure. 

“For the last few months, my administration has been convening technical experts at the FAA, the FCC and from the wireless and aviation industries to discuss a solution that allows the expansion of 5G and aviation to safely co-exist, and I am pleased those efforts helped produce yesterday’s agreement.”

The rollout is now set to occur on Jan. 19.

On top of the delay, both companies will also implement exclusion zones around 50 designated U.S. airports. The goal is to give the FAA and aviation companies more time to test aircraft altimeters and update outdated technology. 

The FAA swiftly thanked both telecommunication giants. 

“Safety is the core of our mission and this guides all of our decisions,” the FAA said in a statement. “The FAA thanks AT&T and Verizon for agreeing to a voluntary delay and for their proposed mitigations. We look forward to using the additional time and space to reduce flight disruptions associated with this 5G deployment.”

The rollout of a nationwide 5G network was already delayed by one month when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Chairman Stephen Dickson penned a letter to Verizon and AT&T heads Hans Vestberg and John Stankey requesting a further extension. Both government officials cited concerns over air traffic safety with the stronger gigahertz frequencies used in 5G C-band transmissions. 

The request was promptly denied by Vestberg and Stankey in a Jan. 2 letter. Both executives said that the companies have abided by every safety requirement to mitigate airplane altimeter interference, and that all C-band transmissions and rollouts have been cleared by the Federal Communications Commission. 

Officials at the FCC supported Verizon and AT&T in their initial rejection, issuing a third letter to Buttigieg dated Jan. 1.

Calling Buttigieg’s request for a delay “highly irregular,” FCC Brendan Carr reiterated that the agency authorized C-band technology following extensive research and resolved safety concerns related to altimeter interference.

“Your request for delay is not backed up by the science, engineering or law,” Carr wrote. “Indeed, your arguments are predicated on the claim that there are unresolved concerns about harmful interference from C-Band operations into radio altimeters. That is not correct.”

Previous reports on the severity of interference C-band technology can have on altimeter communications emphasizes a need for standardization in testing. A July 2021 report conducted by the Government Accountability Office recommended that the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration need to collaboratively regulate guidance for studies to achieve an accurate picture of potential interference.