(Bloomberg) — Airlines warned of increased flight delays after AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. brushed aside a U.S. government request to postpone new 5G service that aviation interests say risks safety because it may interfere with aircraft electronics.
The two wireless companies on Sunday said the request from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Steve Dickson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, would be “to the detriment of” millions of mobile customers. The companies said they might offer a six-month pause near some airports.
The FAA and DOT were considering the response Sunday but airlines and regulators predicted substantial impacts on flight schedules if there aren’t some adjustments to the 5G service set to start Jan. 5. The Airlines for America trade group, using worst-case assumptions, said there could be as many as 350,000 commercial flights impacted per year at a cost of $2.1 billion.
“Without appropriate mitigations, the 5G deployment around airports could disrupt as many as 345,000 passenger flights — impacting 32 million travelers — in addition to 5,400 cargo flights each year in the form of delays, diversions or cancellations,” Airlines for America said in a statement Sunday.
The new 5G signals would use a set of airwaves made freshly available to mobile communications providers. The frequencies are near those used by altitude-sensing radar altimeters. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers have said that creates a chance of interference that could leave some landings unsafe.
The wireless industry said power levels are low enough to preclude interference, and the gap between frequencies is sufficiently large to ensure safety. The carriers on Sunday cast the 5G rollout as a priority, citing a race with China to offer extensive high-speed mobile broadband, and escalating demand for wireless service amid the Covid pandemic.
Stakes are high for both industries. The wireless industry paid more than $80 billion in an auction for access to the frequencies in question, and AT&T and Verizon will rely on them for network upgrades to compete with T-Mobile US Inc. in providing the next generation of fast mobile broadband.
In a letter Friday, Buttigieg and Dickson asked the wireless providers for delay of up to two weeks. The officials forecast possible “widespread and unacceptable disruption” to air traffic as planes avoid airports bathed in 5G signals that could affect electronics used during landings.
The wireless carriers responded Sunday in a letter from each company’s chief executive officer: Verizon’s Hans Vestberg and AT&T’s John Stankey.
“Your proposed framework asks that we agree to transfer oversight of our companies’ multi-billion dollar investment in 50 unnamed metropolitan areas representing the lion’s share of the U.S. population to the FAA for an undetermined number of months or years,” Vestberg and Stankey wrote. “Even worse, the proposal is directed to only two companies.”
The wireless executives said agreeing to the proposal would be “an irresponsible abdication of the operating control required to deploy world-class and globally competitive communications networks.”
Earlier AT&T and Verizon agreed to reduce power of their 5G signals and to put in place a 30-day delay, moving the service’s start from December.
The mobile providers in their joint letter Sunday that they might be willing to commit to a six-month pause in deployment near certain airports that will be selected in negotiations with U.S. officials and the aviation industry.
Some type of restriction on 5G service near runways could limit impacts and give industry groups and regulators more time to study the potential for interference. In their letter on Friday, Buttigieg and Dickson also suggested limiting service near unspecified “priority airports.”
FAA and DOT officials were reviewing the response from the companies and “U.S. aviation safety standards will guide our next actions,” the FAA said in an emailed statement.
The FAA and industry groups, and an arm of the United Nations, have been raising concerns about use of the radio waves since 2015, the U.S. aviation regulator said Sunday.
The AT&T and Verizon executives in Sunday’s letter said that if aviation interests don’t escalate their campaign against the new signals, they would commit to not deploying towers near certain airports for six months. The offer is modeled after exclusion zones at airports in France, where 5G service is working on similar frequencies and U.S. airliners have landed.
The wireless executives said they are “committed to continue” cooperation with transportation interests “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.”
Aviation groups have argued that power levels and frequencies approved in other nations, including France, aren’t comparable to those in the U.S.
The Airlines for America trade group in an emergency petition last week asked the Federal Communications Commission to delay the planned 5G deployment. The CTIA trade group that represents wireless interests told the FCC to reject the request.
“We are optimistic that by working together we can both advance the wireless economy and ensure aviation safety,” an FCC spokesperson said in an email Sunday.
On Sunday, the largest U.S. union representing cockpit crews, the Air Line Pilots Association, filed a letter saying it supported A4A’s request to the FCC to postpone the service. The FCC’s action is “urgently needed” because time is so short, the union said.
The U.S. transportation officials in their Friday letter requested a delay of “no more than two weeks.” During that time, the FAA and the aviation industry would identify airports where a buffer zone would permit flights to continue safely.