The late-December pledge from the U.S. wireless and aviation industries to work together over the safety of the 5G C-band was short-lived, with both sides issuing acrimonious letters and petitions between Christmas and New Year’s in what is shaping up to be a turf war between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and FAA. Wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon are scheduled to switch on the 5G C-band on Wednesday. While the exigent topic du jour is the potential of the 5G C-band to disrupt aircraft radio altimeters with RF interference and all their related systems that make instrument flight safe and reliable, the larger issue is which agency has the primary responsibility for aviation safety.
This is ground the FAA is clearly not willing to cede and it appears the issue likely is headed to court. In a New Year’s Eve joint letter to the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson asked the carriers to delay the rollout of 5G C-band for up to another two weeks, and at some locations for up to two months, to allow the FAA to “identify priority airports where a buffer zone would permit aviation operations to continue safely while the FAA completes its assessments of the interference potential around those airports.
"Our goal would then be to identify mitigations for all priority airports that will enable the majority of our large commercial aircraft to operate safely in all conditions," Dickson continued. "This will allow for 5G C-band to deploy around these airports on a rolling basis, such that C-band planned locations will be activated by the end of March 2022, barring unforeseen technical challenges or new safety concerns.”
During the next two weeks, the FAA said, it would work to identify priority airports, issue required notams, and begin approving alternate means of compliance. "During this time, the FAA will review information relating to the size of the buffer zone around critical airports and will seek to reduce the size when safely able based on data from aviation manufacturers,” it added.
The wireless CEOs, whose companies spent more than $80 billion to acquire the C-band spectrum in 2020, responded negatively to this entreaty yesterday. “AT&T and Verizon agreed to wait until January 5 to begin using the C-band and to implement additional restrictions on our use of the spectrum through July 5 over and above the operational restrictions the FCC already had found sufficient to protect radio altimeters. Although there was no requirement for us to adopt these measures, we did so voluntarily in the spirit of cooperation and good faith.
“Now, on the evening of New Year’s Eve, just five days before the C-band spectrum will be deployed, we received your letter asking us to take still more voluntary steps—to the detriment of our millions of consumer, business, and government customers—to once again assist the aviation industry and the FAA after failing to resolve issues in that costly 30-day delay period, which we never considered to be an initial one.”
However, the wireless CEOs—John Stankey at AT&T and Hans Vestberg at Verizon—pledged to continue to work with the FAA if the agency and the industries it regulates are, in effect, willing to accept what amounts to a gag order and also cease and desist from any further regulatory or legal challenges. “We are, however, committed to continue our cooperation with your department and all interested parties, including the offer of further mitigations described below, on the condition that the FAA and the aviation industry are committed to doing the same without escalating their grievances, unfounded as they are, in other venues.”
The CEOs re-offered the 5G C-band exclusions currently in force in France, initially proffered in November, which include exclusion zones around certain runways at certain airports and reduced power transmissions in the last mile of final approach and the first mile of departure. Critics of applying the French framework to U.S. aviation point out that France uses a different part of the C-band spectrum at lower power and therefore does not present a useful model, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, which criticized it as “insufficient to protect safety-of-life aviation altimeter usage in and around airport and heliport areas and helicopter operations outside of heliport areas.”
And the window for both sides to play nice might well already have come and gone. On December 30, Airlines for America (A4A), the airline industry trade association, filed an emergency petition with the FCC seeking to delay the 5G C-band rollout. That petition was supported yesterday in a separate filing with the FCC by the Airline Pilots Association.
In its petition, A4A wrote: “The aviation stakeholders will prevail on their legal claims that the FCC has improperly failed to explain why it rejected record evidence of the detrimental impact of interference from 3.7-GHz licenses on radio altimeters. An administrative agency like the FCC must address significant comments made in a rulemaking proceeding and respond in a reasoned manner to those that raise significant problems. Here, the commission has summarily dismissed comments pointing out documented, serious risks to aviation safety from interference to altimeters. The commission has failed to provide even minimal clarity as to how it has dismissed the record evidence of interference to radio altimeters and consequential impacts on aviation safety, which is itself arbitrary and capricious.”
A4A said it would seek judicial relief if the FCC failed to act on its position by noon today. In its petition, A4A asserted that implementation of 5G C-band would cost air carriers $4 billion in direct flight delay/cancellation costs and accused the FCC of failing to apply “reasoned analysis.”
Meanwhile, the FAA is gearing up to issue 5G C-band-related notams that could make last week’s record Covid and weather-related air travel delays seem like a minor annoyance by comparison.