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AT&T and Verizon 5G upgrades delayed as airlines warn of 'major disruption'

5G radio tower
5G radio tower (Image credit: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

What you need to know

  • AT&T and Verizon have announced that they will delay C-band 5G rollout around some airports until an undetermined date in the future.
  • The spectrum in question is from 3.7 to 4.0 GHz and is responsible for delivering next-gen 5G speeds to phones.
  • Airline officials claim that this spectrum will interfere with older altimeters on many commercial and domestic planes, citing "catastrophic disruption" if the 5G towers were to go live.

Airplane mode on your phone might become much more important if airline officials' claims turn out to be true. The mid-band 5G spectrum from around 3.7-4.0 GHz was scheduled to go live on January 19 after several previous delays. That rollout is being delayed yet again, writes Reuters, after airline officials issued a letter to the FAA, FCC, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and President Biden himself on January 17. That's less than two days before the scheduled deployment.

T-Mobile does not use this spectrum for its 5G network and is not affected by this decision.

In the letter, airline officials parroted a statement they've been saying since 2019 when the FAA wrote the rules for this particular block of wireless spectrum. They say that older altimeters won't work properly in low-visibility conditions when these 5G signals are deployed too close to airports.

The FAA has only cleared around 45% of U.S. commercial planes to perform low-visibility landings at airports where this 5G C-band spectrum was scheduled to be deployed. As a result, airline officials say that 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would see airline delays "on a day like yesterday (January 16, 2021)" if they were not cleared by the FAA.

Verizon and AT&T issued statements to The Verge citing they were 'frustrated' with both the FAA and the airlines, both of which have taken longer than expected to upgrade equipment and clear airplanes for landing.

The FAA says that modern altimeters should have no issues avoiding any possible interference that could be caused during particularly heavy traffic days.

Additionally, statements from AT&T and Verizon say that 40 countries worldwide have already adopted this spectrum around airports with no reported problems.

Verizon 5G speed test

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Verizon and AT&T bought the license to use the C-band spectrum, as it's called, for $65 billion in February 2021 in an effort to further bolster their 5G network. This particular spectrum is extremely important in both companies' 5G deployment as it's used to deliver what could be considered "next-generation speeds" on the best 5G phones that are already in customers' hands.

The statement AT&T and Verizon issued did not say when the rollout will be paused until, but it's clear from President Biden's response that the FAA and the President still see success as the President's letter states that this will still allow "90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled."

The President's statement also does not give a firm date as to when deployment is scheduled to restart.

Nicholas Sutrich
Senior Content Producer — Smartphones & VR
Nick started with DOS and NES and uses those fond memories of floppy disks and cartridges to fuel his opinions on modern tech. Whether it's VR, smart home gadgets, or something else that beeps and boops, he's been writing about it since 2011. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @Gwanatu
4 Comments
  • I love how Verizon and ATT absolutely torched the FAA. They are so used to getting handouts they thought the carriers would just bend over and give them $$. Amazing how there are no issues in other countries using C-band. The airlines just want someone to pay for their upgrades instead of themselves (which should have been done years ago). 
  • The airlines have know since 2019 and have done nothing to fix the problem. I think they make enough money to replace the old altimeters.
  • What Verizon and AT&T are leaving out of their statements on the EU rolling 5G out with no issues, is the fact that both Verizon and AT&T have DOUBLED the power of their 5G antennas (without informing the FAA) and that the spectrum they use in the US is much closer to the Radio Altimeter frequency than in the EU where they are using 3.4 GHZ, not the 3.98 GHZ the US carriers are using. This provides a MUCH larger "guard band" than the US implementation does.
    Also, in the EU (and elsewhere) they are REQUIRED to point their antennas downward, and not point any antennas along landing routes, and in many cases cannot install them at airports in the first place.
    Both Verizon and AT&T are LYING about this. Their greed has brought this on themselves, not airline "inaction".
    It takes a lot of money and downtime to install new altimeters on the tens of thousands of foreign-owned aircraft flying into US airspace. The FAA has also not required airlines to make the change in the first place, and airlines don't make expensive changes unless they have to (just like Verizon and AT&T.)
    Don't take Verizon's or AT&T's word for it, especially with their track-record of "honesty".
  • Oh yes the airline industry is well know for their "honesty". BTW I am not defending the phone cos either.