Let’s see… On Friday, the airlines were asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to indefinitely delay turning on C-band spectrum for 5G as planned on January 5. The same day, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson penned a letter to the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon, asking that they delay their C-band launches for another two weeks beyond the agreed-upon January 5 deadline.

On Sunday, AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg told the federal agencies that no, they weren’t going to delay their C-band deployments any further – but they were willing to adopt the same C-band radio exclusion zones that are already in use in France, reducing C-band signal levels by at least 10 times on the runway and the last mile of takeoff and final approach.

The showdown between wireless/the FCC and aviation/FAA continued, and finally on Monday evening, AT&T and Verizon acquiesced and said they would delay their C-band 5G launches, nationwide, for another two weeks, giving aviation even more time to resolve this interference or perceived interference problem. (Really, it’s an aging altimeter problem, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Or is it?)  

To be sure, a lot happened in between all of these events, but that’s the upshot. And where are we today?

Some history with C-band

Verizon acquired the largest number of C-band licenses, at a cost of about $45.5 billion, and AT&T bought the second most, for $23.4 billion. To make sure they would be able to launch in December 2021, they committed to paying satellite companies billions of dollars in accelerated payments over and above the amount they already paid for the spectrum.

Both spent much of 2021 preparing for their C-band launches, as Verizon executives reminded us time and time again during their appearances at investor events. In recent weeks, expectations were high that both carriers would use the January 2022 CES show to highlight their commercial use of the spectrum and make hay out of their hefty purchases.

That’s not to be, but it’s also really hard to justify the need for 5G when you’re up against the airlines that are crying foul about potential interference. Will planes crash because of C-band? No, but that’s not how the aviation community is painting this. Nobody wants pilots to fly when it’s possibly unsafe, especially when the airlines have been cancelling thousands of flights due to the weather and Covid-related staffing problems. Throw the C-band problems into the mix? Why not?!

It baffles me that the airlines didn’t upgrade their radio altimeters a long ago. Then again, it’s a bit unnerving to think about the age of the planes that are flying our friendly skies. Maybe they figured it would be better to wait and somehow force the wireless carriers to pay for the altimeter upgrades? This hasn’t been a big focus of published reports, although it did come up in a recent filing, and who knows what’s being said behind closed doors. (If you do, please let us know.)

When I last talked with AT&T’s Gordon Mansfield, it was just after the Thanksgiving holiday and before this latest round of controversy. But he explained that between millimeter wave and AT&T’s existing spectrum holdings, that would be sufficient to serve the immediate vicinity around airports with 5G, although they still “firmly believed” that there’s not an interference issue with C-band. A lot of folks don’t live within the immediate vicinity of airports for obvious reasons, so there isn’t a huge number of customers there. Plus, wireless carriers tend to point their antennas toward the ground where their customers are walking and talking, not up into the sky, so there’s that.

Aviation needs to get its act together

Over the holidays, one of my flights was delayed by about an hour due, we were told, to a malfunctioning food service truck. (This was after a previous flight was cancelled by another airline due to heavy snow in Minneapolis.)

It makes one imagine what a pilot would say if C-band were the reason the flight was delayed. How do you explain to a plane full of passengers, in 30 seconds or so, why the FCC decided in 2020 to authorize and oversee an auction of frequencies in the C-band for terrestrial 5G? How the U.S. government then raised over $80 billion from carriers like AT&T and Verizon that bid on the spectrum? Why a 220-megahertz guard band isn’t sufficient to protect radio altimeters operating at 4.2-4.4 GHz from 5G spectrum operating at 3.7-3.8 MHz?

And why it’s someone else’s fault that the airlines or the FAA didn’t make sure radio altimeters would work properly when they’re supposed to? The FCC said nearly two years ago that the aviation community needed to take steps to ensure the proper functioning of altimeters.

The answer is you don’t, of course. Explaining all of this in under 2 minutes would be impossible, or make your already irate passengers even more irritated. Maybe that explains a lot. In the public’s eye, air safety is going to take precedence over 5G any day – especially when carriers have done a poor job of helping anyone understand what the heck 5G does. Even if they did explain 5G, air safety would of course still win out. The only thing you want to hear while sitting on a plane is how it’s going to be a “safe and enjoyable” experience. 

This is a situation where so far, much of it is inexplicable, except that if you’re the FAA, you can throw “flight safety” around to get your way with spectrum, obviating the need for the FCC’s (previously) well-established spectrum expertise and oversight. It will be interesting to see how the FCC defends itself in the days and weeks to come.

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