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

This might be the final delay facing both carriers

The latest — and possibly last — chapter of the ongoing C-Band 5G saga might be drawing to a close. After months of delays, false starts, and frustration on both sides of the issue, the FAA has reached agreements with AT&T and Verizon to roll out their advanced 5G networks near US airports. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a while before travelers and residents living near airfields alike can take advantage of improved networking.

According to today’s FAA press release, Verizon and AT&T have agreed to launch C-Band 5G near airports across the US in July 2023, giving all parties involved just over a year to prepare for a full launch. Over the last year, the FAA has paused C-Band’s launch multiple times over concerns that these signals could interfere with older radio altimeters still used in planes today. In January, the agency warned that a rushed activation could be “catastrophic,” with potentially tens of thousands of Americans stranded if flights couldn’t take off properly. In the end, C-Band 5G did launch this year, though not near airports.

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If today’s announcement is anything to go by, the three groups have a plan to fix those concerns. “We believe we have identified a path that will continue to enable aviation and 5G C-band wireless to co-exist safely. We appreciate the willingness of Verizon and AT&T to continue this important and productive collaboration with the aviation industry,” acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement.

The plan is simple: regional aircraft operators must add radio frequency filters to their altimeters by the end of 2022, with a timeline allowing for completed work by July 2023. That’s a long way away — especially since the original launch date for Verizon and AT&T was set for 2021. Still, it’s better than nothing, and both carriers seem pleased as punch. Verizon issued the following statement on its website:

Today’s announcement identifies a path forward that will enable Verizon to make full use of our C-Band spectrum for 5G around airports on an accelerated and defined schedule. Under this agreement reached with the FAA, we will lift the voluntary limitations on our 5G network deployment around airports in a staged approach over the coming months meaning even more consumers and businesses will benefit from the tremendous capabilities of 5G technology. This progress is the result of months of close collaboration with the FAA, FCC and aviation industry, and sets the stage for continued, robust 5G deployment.

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

Through close coordination with the FAA over the last several months, we have developed a more tailored approach to controlling signal strength around runways that allows us to activate more towers and increase signal strength. Though our FCC licenses allow us to fully deploy much-needed C-Band spectrum right now, we have chosen in good faith to implement these more tailored precautionary measures so that airlines have additional time to retrofit equipment. We appreciate the FAA’s support of this approach, and we will continue to work with the aviation community as we move toward the expiration of all such voluntary measures by next summer.

Of course, we have thirteen months of potential delays to go. Nearly all of the setbacks both carriers faced over the last year have come just days — or in some cases, hours — before the planned launch of C-Band. It’s easy to imagine a world where June 30th, 2023 ends with a halt from the FAA, angering both carriers once more and forcing customers to stick with low-band 5G.

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