Last week, T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert commented how it was regrettable that “this has been so widely reported as a 5G issue,” when asked during the earnings call about C-band spectrum and the concerns of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about possible interference.

He’s not alone. A lot of folks regret that the entire 5G market is getting a bad name from C-band.

It’s one of the spectrum bands that carriers are using to deliver 5G services –  but one of many. Granted, it’s one of the most valued – companies spent more than $80 billion for the rights to use it in the FCC’s auction last year. It’s mid-band spectrum, so it’s considered highly valuable for its coverage and speed characteristics.

But it doesn’t define 5G. T-Mobile, for example, uses 600 MHz, 2.5 GHz and 39 GHz for 5G, and when the second tranche of C-band becomes available in 2023, it will have an average 40 MHz of C-band at its disposal. And it just picked up 3.45 GHz spectrum in the FCC’s most recent auction for 5G services, where it spent nearly $3 billion.

Of course, Verizon and AT&T were the two biggest spenders in the C-band auction, putting up $45 billion and $23 billion, respectively, before relocation costs. T-Mobile spent about $9 billion.

But when headlines hit about airlines canceling flights and FAA concerns about altimeters, they usually didn’t specify 3.7 GHz as the culprit. More often, it was blamed on “5G,” the next generation of wireless technology that carriers are banking on to take them through the next 10 years.

One need look no further than President Joe Biden’s comments. “I want to thank Verizon and AT&T for agreeing to delay 5G deployment around key airports and to continue working with the Department of Transportation on safe 5G deployment at this limited set of locations,” the President said in a January 18 statement.

That’s all well and good, but as many industry insiders know, it’s the C-band portion of 5G, and specifically a part of the C-band spectrum, that caused all the ruckus. It’s not 5G itself.

Johan Bjorklund is a former Ericsson executive and currently CEO of Betacom, a company that’s been busy deploying 5G networks at airports. He felt strongly enough about it to pen a blog last month. “Bottom line: this is a spectrum issue, not a 5G issue,” he wrote.

The company actually talked with airport personnel who were at a place where they were ready to issue RFPs, but they were concerned about CBRS being lumped into a “5G issue” and wanted to hold off until the dust settles.

“The people that we’re dealing with at the airports – the ones who are closest to it, they understand that private wireless and CBRS is 500 megahertz removed from the 4.2 GHz spectrum where the airline communication equipment starts,” Bjorklund told Fierce. But when they’re talking with other constituencies, perhaps board members whose primary job isn’t in wireless, it’s not always easy to explain what’s going on.  

“We just want to set the record straight that this is not a 5G issue,” he said. “This is a specific spectrum issue that needs to be resolved between the airline industry and the telecommunications industry.”

Heavy ad spending

At the same time Verizon and AT&T were dealing with FAA and aviation concerns, they wanted to hype up the “oomph” they’re getting from C-band. Verizon, especially, blasted the TV airwaves about its “Ultra Wideband” services. “There’s a boatload of advertising” associated with the C-band deployment, said Jeff Moore, principal of Wave7 Research.

Moore said he was listening to a talk show where the statement was made that “they’re launching 5G in the United States” on January 19. “I wanted to reach into the radio and strangle him,” he said. “That’s not right on so many different levels… People who just don’t understand telecom at all are conflating 5G and C-band-based 5G.”

Verizon has spent big bucks to advertise its “Ultra Wideband” service. There’s no word on how many billboards were set up on the way to and from the busiest airports where it had to tamp down power and provide buffer zones to satisfy the aviation community.

Advertising will be in even higher gear this weekend when the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals compete in the 56th Super Bowl. Verizon launched at least four TV commercials in early January, right around the time of the NFL playoffs. “Ultra is the big word,” with four exclamation points behind it, Moore noted.

Bill Ho, principal analyst at 556 Ventures, said T-Mobile’s statements last week were a necessary public relations move when the public lumps C-band spectrum and 5G into the same category. Plus, T-Mobile executives needed to distance themselves from Verizon and AT&T’s problems with the FAA. They stopped short of slamming their competitors because they have their own C-band spectrum, which they’ll put into service in 2023.

As more articles and content gets produced spelling out the difference, the general public will follow suit, and while it’s top of mind now, with education and PR by the industry, the concerns should get mitigated, he said.

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