The FAA is concerned about airport 5G deployments again

The agency is now scrutinizing C-band 5G spectrum from smaller operators.
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Francis Scialabba

· 3 min read

When it comes to America’s deployment of C-band 5G, you’d be forgiven for thinking the “C” stands for contentious.

In late October, the FAA logged another entry in the ongoing airline-5G saga, this time asking the FCC to mandate additional voluntary operating limits on C-band 5G deployments near airports for 19 small- and mid-tier telecoms and spectrum holders due to concerns that it could interfere with plane altimeters, per Reuters.

Up until this point, the target of similar mandated voluntary operating limits had been C-band giants like Verizon and AT&T. The pair has each spent tens of billions of dollars to acquire licenses to deploy C-band 5G, which is also known as the “Goldilocks spectrum” due to its ability to deliver fast speeds over long distances.

The FAA’s new push to limit smaller C-band operators is an attempt to set a standard across the industry, according to Jason Leigh, research manager for mobility and 5G research at IDC.

“[Verizon and AT&T] are not the only two players with C-band spectrum. I think the FAA is starting to say, well, what about everybody else that [is] not part of this voluntary agreement?” he said. “They’re trying to just codify it a little bit to say, ‘Okay, we’ve got the two big dogs in the house that have agreed to do this, but we want to make sure that everybody abides by it.’”

History lesson

The FCC announced the results of its C-band spectrum auction in February 2021, and T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T spent a collective ~$78 billion to snap up most of it. Verizon led the pack, spending $45.5 billion for around 3,500 total licenses, and AT&T came in second, spending $23.4 billion for 1,621 licenses. Several smaller players, like Agri-Valley Communications and Horry Telephone Cooperative, also spent millions to acquire C-band licenses. In total, over $81 billion was bid.

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Verizon is also now investing heavily to deploy C-band, with related capital expenditures reaching $4.5 billion for the first 9 months of 2022, per its Q3 earnings call.

When the issue was first publicly broached by the FAA last December, it set flight restrictions for pilots in an attempt to avoid potential interference. Due to these concerns, the telcos agreed in January to create 5G exclusion zones around airports across the country. Six months later, in June, Verizon and AT&T voluntarily extended a ban on some deployments until at least July 2023, rolling out in stages to give airlines time to retrofit their altimeters.

Despite claims that there were no “proven reports of harmful interference,” reports of altimeter failures have jumped since January, per IEEE Spectrum.

It’s unclear whether the FAA or FCC ultimately has the authority to enforce conditions on 5G deployment, Leigh told us. And whether the smaller operators feel the effects of a potential ban will be “hit or miss,” Leigh said, depending on if they are deployed near or plan to deploy near airports.

“It’s not like AT&T and Verizon, where you’re talking about airports across the country,” he said. “You may have an airport here and there, depending on where those other operators have their spectrum licenses.”

Looking ahead…Leigh said while Verizon’s and AT&T’s voluntary operating limits are in place, the FAA appears to be trying to solve the issue through actions like requiring aircraft with “radio altimeters most susceptible to interference to retrofit them with radio-frequency filters” by the end of the year.

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