The FAA will finally allow Verizon and AT&T to turn on C-band 5G near airports, but with a catch

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This could be the latest delay both airlines will face

The latest – and possibly final – chapter in the ongoing C-band 5G saga may be drawing to a close. After months of delays, false starts, and frustration on both sides of the issue, the FAA has struck deals with AT&T and Verizon to roll out their advanced 5G networks near US airports. Unfortunately, it will be a while before travelers and residents near airports alike can benefit from improved connectivity.

According to today’s FAA press release, Verizon and AT&T have agreed to roll out C-band 5G near US airports in July 2023, giving all parties involved a little over a year to prepare for a full launch. Over the past year, the FAA has halted C-band launches several times over concerns that these signals could interfere with older radio altimeters still used on airplanes today. In January, the agency warned that rushed activation could be “catastrophic,” as tens of thousands of Americans could be stranded if flights failed to take off properly. In the end C-band 5G did Launching this year, although not near airports.

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If today’s announcement is to be believed, the three groups have a plan to address these concerns. “We believe we have found a path that will continue to enable the secure coexistence of aviation and 5G C-band wireless. We appreciate Verizon and AT&T’s willingness to continue this important and productive collaboration with the airline industry,” FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement.

The plan is simple: regional aircraft operators must have their altimeters fitted with radio frequency filters by the end of 2022, with a timetable for the work to be completed by July 2023. That’s still a long way off — especially since the original launch date for Verizon and AT&T was set for 2021. Still, it’s better than nothing, and both airlines seem excited. Verizon made the following statement on its website:

Today’s announcement sets out a path forward that will allow Verizon to fully utilize our C-band spectrum for 5G around airports on an accelerated and committed schedule. As part of this agreement with the FAA, we will gradually lift voluntary restrictions on our 5G network deployments around airports over the coming months, meaning even more consumers and businesses will benefit from the tremendous opportunities of 5G technology. This advance is the result of months of close collaboration with the FAA, FCC and the airline industry, and sets the stage for continued, robust 5G deployment.

Meanwhile, AT&T issued a statement to The Verge.

Working closely with the FAA over the last several months, we have developed a more tailored approach to controlling signal strength around runways, allowing us to activate more towers and increase signal strength. Although our FCC licenses allow us to now fully provide much-needed C-band spectrum, we have made a good faith decision to implement these more tailored precautions to allow airlines additional time to retrofit equipment. We appreciate the FAA’s support for this approach, and we will continue to work with the aviation community as we move toward phasing out all of these voluntary actions by next summer.

Of course we have thirteen months of potential delays ahead of us. Almost all of the setbacks both airlines have faced over the past year have occurred just days — or hours in some cases — before C-band is scheduled to launch. It’s easy to imagine a world where June 30, 2023 ends with a stop by the FAA, once again angering both carriers and forcing customers to stick with low-band 5G.

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