US Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told members of Congress this week that the technological fix to concerns about possible interference between new 5G service and key airplane equipment, which resulted in a standoff between the wireless industry and airline regulators earlier this year, “won’t be completely resolved by this summer,” and he said it remained a “top concern.”
Buttigieg told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday at a hearing that he’ll continue to keep a close eye on interference concerns that resulted in several flight cancellations in January and a delayed rollout of 5G service on C-band spectrum. He also tried to allay fears of further flight disruptions by highlighting the strong collaboration happening among wireless carriers and the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure 5G can coexist safely with air travel.
“We’re in a much better place than we were in December and January,” Buttigieg said in response to a question from Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, who’d asked whether to expect future disruptions, with a voluntary agreement between the FAA and wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon set to expire this summer. That agreement restricts 5G signals near certain airports.
Buttigieg added that he’s optimistic about heading off future conflict “largely because we have much better dialogue and collaboration, not just among regulators but among industries, and have been directly engaging with the airlines, the aviation equipment manufacturers and with the telecom carriers to make sure that we’re on a better path.”
5G and FAA: What happened?
The issue goes back to late 2021, when the wireless industry and aviation regulators at the FAA began publicly clashing over deployment of the newest version of 5G service. Wireless service providers were about to put to use $80 billion worth of wireless spectrum in the so-called C-band to use for 5G service. But weeks before the carriers were to deploy service, the FAA warned that the services transmitting in the C-band could interfere with altimeters used on some airplanes to help them land in low visibility. The FAA demanded that the 5G service not be deployed until this concern was addressed.
But the wireless industry’s regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, had already looked at potential interference concerns and had determined before the auction for C-band spectrum had even begun that there weren’t any significant issues with interference. Tensions came to a head in January on the eve of the 5G deployment when Secretary Buttigieg and Steve Dickson, administrator for the FAA, asked the wireless carriers to delay the launch of the services because of aviation safety concerns.
The carriers rejected this request and began turning on 5G service around the country, leading several major international airlines to cancel flights. The public spat highlighted a failing in the communication and coordination among federal agencies, namely the FCC tasked with doling out critical national resources and ensuring safe operations of communication devices and the FAA, whose mandate is to protect the flying public.
Collaboration is the key
Even though AT&T and Verizon have disputed the aviation industry’s predictions that the networks will endanger passenger flights, the carriers engaged in negotiations with the DOT and the FAA to address concerns, while also finding a way to turn on their 5G networks using the C-band spectrum. As a result, in January an agreement was reached that would allow carriers to deploy their 5G service throughout most of the country while delaying the move in some locations surrounding certain airport runways. Meanwhile, the FAA has been working with equipment manufacturers and airlines to identify problematic altimeters and mitigate any issues.
The voluntary agreement has worked so far, and flights have continued throughout the US without interruption. But the agreement will end in July, at which point some lawmakers are concerned a new battle will ignite, especially as air travel is expected to significantly increase this summer.
“We know that the agreement that was reached is going to expire this summer,” Collins said during the hearing. “Do we anticipate there are going to be further disruptions?”
Buttigieg acknowledged that the technological fix to the problem won’t be solved by this summer and that there’s more work to be done “to make sure that there is safe and economically beneficial coexistence between 5G C band spectrum in the US and these radio altimeters.”
But Buttigieg sounded confident that the wireless and airline industries would be able to work together in the meantime to ensure safe air travel and access to 5G service.
“We are doing everything we can to pursue the technological solutions that I think will be the ultimate long range fix for this,” Buttigieg said, “while in the meantime continuing to pursue and support the negotiated solutions, which I would note have really worked on a voluntary basis up to now, and I think that’s a credit to the collaborative spirit that we were able to reach across industries and players.”
Carriers show confidence
AT&T and Verizon echoed Buttigieg’s optimism that the two industries will continue to work together until the technical issues are sorted out, without major disruption to air travel or 5G service.
“We continue to work closely and collaboratively with the FAA, and we are encouraged by the progress made thus far. We expect that progress to continue,” said Alex Byers, director of corporate communications at AT&T.
Verizon said in a statement that it’s “very encouraged by the collaboration and pace in which the FAA, the FCC, and the airline and communications industries have addressed and cleared issues with 5G networks around many airports.”
The company also added that Verizon is “highly confident that the small and declining number of outstanding questions will be resolved sooner than later, without a significant impact to airline operations or the availability of 5G at airports.”