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Biden lauds pause of 5G rollout near certain airports

Heeding dire warnings of possible aviation issues from major airline executives, AT&T and Verizon will delay new 5G wireless service near some airports.

WASHINGTON (CN) — AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay the rollout of a new 5G wireless service near some airports following severe warnings by top airline executives, a move President Joe Biden applauded on Tuesday. 

“I want to thank Verizon and AT&T for agreeing to delay 5G deployment around key airports and to continue working with the Department of Transportation on safe 5G deployment at this limited set of locations,” Biden said in a statement. 

Nearly a dozen airline executives—including the chief executives of American, Delta, Southwest and United—clashed with the wireless providers earlier this week over plans to launch new 5G service near certain airports and runways.

The CEOs said that thousands of flights would be grounded or delayed if 5G transmitters were switched on as planned on Wednesday.

“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” the executives said in a letter to federal officials Monday prior to the agreement. “This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays.” 

Biden said Tuesday’s agreement to temporarily cease the 5G rollout in some areas “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90% of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled.”

To measure altitude, most airplanes transmit a radio frequency signal from the aircraft down to the ground and receive the reflected signal back. The height of the flight is determined by the time it takes these signals to return to the aircraft’s radar. 

The new high-speed 5G wireless service relies on radio frequencies that are very similar, leading to concerns that nearby transmitters could interfere with aircraft electronics. 

A report provided last year to the Federal Communications Commission by an aviation guidance organization, RTCA, said a failure to mitigate the release of C-Band 5G in certain locations could cause flights to suffer “catastrophic failures.”

The wireless providers, however, contend that their equipment is safe and will not interfere with aircraft altitude meters. 

Verizon and AT&T reached an agreement earlier this month with the Federal Aviation Administration to pause the 5G release for two more weeks and limit the power of 5G transmitters close to airports. 

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg wrote a letter on Jan. 3 to AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, thanking them for holding off on the release. 

“Your voluntary agreement both to delay initial deployment by two weeks, and to subsequently adopt some additional mitigations, will give us additional time and space to reduce the impacts to commercial flights,” Buttigieg said.

The companies plan to move forward with a scaled-back rollout of the new C-Band 5G on Wednesday. 

“My team has been engaging non-stop with the wireless carriers, airlines, and aviation equipment manufacturers to chart a path forward for 5G deployment and aviation to safely co-exist,” Biden said on Tuesday, “and, at my direction, they will continue to do so until we close the remaining gap and reach a permanent, workable solution around these key airports."

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