US officials ask AT&T, Verizon to delay 5G rollout over aviation industry concerns

In a Dec. 31 letter, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Steve Dickson and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg asked AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon Communications CEO Hans Vestberg to postpone plans to activate the technology on Jan. 5 by no more than two weeks while the FAA studies the potential for interference with aircraft operations.

According to Buttigieg and Dickson, failure to postpone these plans will “force the U.S. aviation sector to take steps to protect the safety of the traveling public, particularly during periods of low visibility or inclement weather.”

These steps, the letter said, “will result in widespread and unacceptable disruption as airplanes divert to other cities or flights are canceled, causing ripple effects throughout the U.S. air transportation system.”

Officials have drawn concerns before about 5G service potentially interfering with sensitive aircraft electronics, according to Reuters. One such instrument is the radio altimeter (also known as a radar altimeter), which measures the height of planes above the ground by using radio waves. It provides a more precise reading than a barometric altimeter.

AT&T and Verizon Communications previously agreed to a one-month delay in rolling out the 5G technology, which offers faster speeds when mobile devices connect to their networks and allows users to connect many devices to the internet without slowing it down.

Under Dickson and Buttigieg’s new proposal, the service would begin as planned in January “with certain exceptions around priority airports.”

However, the delay will give officials time to identify priority airports “where a buffer zone would permit aviation operations to continue safely while the FAA completes its assessments of the interference potential around those airports,” the letter continued.

The move is part of an overall goal to “protect flight safety, while ensuring that 5G deployment and aviation operations can co-exist.”

Dickson and Buttigieg noted that the delay “advances this goal and avoids substantial disruptions to aviation operations – and to the flying public – in the short term.”

Meanwhile, airline industry trade group Airlines for America also warned of significant issues if the 5G rollout goes ahead near major airports.

“Aircraft will not be able to rely on radio altimeters for numerous flight procedures and thus will not be able to land at certain airports,” the group said in a filing Thursday.

The trade group said its 11 member airlines face the need to reroute or cancel “thousands” of flights, resulting in losses topping $1 billion.

Verizon spokesman Richard Young said, “We received the letter a short time ago, after 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and we will need some time to review it.”

AT&T spokeswoman Kim Hart Jonson said the company was reviewing the letter.