AT&T and Verizon agree to 5G power limits to resolve FAA safety concerns

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AT&T and Verizon Communications voluntarily agree to take further precautions to ensure that cell towers transmitting 5G signals using their newly acquired mid-band spectrum will not interfere with aircraft signals. The companies laid out their plan in a letter sent to the US Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday afternoon, in a move intended to defuse conflict between the wireless and aviation industries.

In the letter to Acting Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rosenworsel, the companies said they plan to reduce power levels across the country on their cell towers that will transmit 5G signals on the so-called C band of the wireless spectrum. In addition, they said they will impose stricter restrictions on the use of this spectrum near regional airports and public helipads, according to the letter reviewed by CNET. In a separate statement, AT&T said the companies had proposed taking the action for a period of six months “while additional evidence from radio altimeter manufacturers is evaluated.”

“While we remain confident that 5G does not pose any safety risk to aviation, we are also sensitive to the FAA’s desire to conduct additional analysis of this issue,” the companies said in the letter.

Earlier this month AT&T and Verizon Temporarily agreed to temporarily suspend the rollout of 5G service On the mid-range spectrum until January 5th. This move came in response to the FAA Warning of possible interference Between safety devices in the main cockpit and cell towers on the ground that transmit 5G signals. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says turrets on the ground that transmit 5G over the C-band of the wireless spectrum could interfere with automated cockpit systems such as those that help planes land in bad weather.

The Federal Communications Commission has praised the companies’ efforts.

“These mitigating technical measures represent one of the world’s most comprehensive efforts to protect aviation technologies,” an agency spokesman said. “With these measures in place, the FCC will continue to work productively with the FAA so that 5G networks can be deployed safely and quickly.”

The row between the FAA and the wireless industry has raised questions about whether the 5G deployment plans of companies like AT&T and Verizon will slow. The wireless industry has spent more than $80 billion on this wireless spectrum, which can transmit 5G signals far beyond the ultra-high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum, but still maintains faster download speeds for the lower-frequency spectrum. But telecom experts, such as Blair Levine, a former FCC official turned equity analyst, said Wednesday’s developments make it likely that the problems will be resolved with little impact on 5G plans.

“From what we can tell, none of these commitments will have a long-term impact on the economic performance of 5G carriers,” he said in a research note to investors. “We believe the carriers believe these efforts are more than reasonable, and therefore, they plan to operate the service, as currently planned on January 5. We believe the message increases the odds of this outcome.”

The companies said in their letter that they will continue to comply with the FCC’s C-band rules that have been “carefully crafted to allow the use of C-band 5G to safely coexist with aviation.” They added that they are taking the precautionary measures “despite the absence of any reliable evidence that the deployment of 5G in the C-band will adversely affect radio altimeters in aircraft, as confirmed by real-world experience.”

The telecommunications industry has argued since the FAA raised concerns that there was no evidence of interference issues with C-band spectrum and flight equipment. CTIA, the wireless industry lobby group, said in a Submitting to the FCC Earlier this month, “40 countries have already adopted rules and deployed hundreds of thousands of 5G base stations in the C-Band at similar frequencies and similar power levels — and in some cases, close to flight operations — than 5G would be in the United States.”

However, the case caught the attention of members of Congress. Last week, Representative Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rick Larsen, chair of the Aviation Subcommittee, sent a message to the FCC, accusing the agency of a “post now, fix later” strategy that “safely rolls the dice.” They have asked the FCC to provide more data to the FAA and have also asked the FCC to block any 5G broadband transmissions on C-band spectrum until the FAA ends risk assessment.

But there are signs that a deal is in the works. Then Senate confirmation hearing Last week, Rosenworcel indicated that discussions were underway in response to a question about the dispute, saying, “I asked if I had confidence in our ability to resolve these issues through mitigation. The answer to that is yes.”

Levine also said in a research note earlier this week that the White House is hosting meetings between stakeholders, which he believes increases the likelihood that the two sides will reach an agreement.

Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler agreed that a solution is within reach, he said in a Posted on a Brookings Institution blog on Monday. He said the Biden administration’s involvement, along with work the FCC’s Engineering Office has done to examine technical problems, should be enough to put an end to this problem. He added that the FCC has a history of effectively dealing with interference concerns for legacy applications when new areas of spectrum are allocated for commercial use.

“The physics involved in this situation is well known,” Wheeler said. “Mitigation techniques are well known. The standard setting process is well known. The importance of getting 5G up and running while protecting bulletins is well known.”

Wheeler continued, “The science here is pretty clear — the laws of physics are hard to override. The real policy of this is the costs of repairing altimeters, just like repaired wheelchairs, hearing aids, and defibrillators.”

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