Federal aviation officials have agreed not to ask for further delays to Verizon and AT&T’s new 5G cellular service, clearing the way for the companies to start their service while avoiding a major clash with regulators who said it could endanger flights.
In addition to delaying the start of their service by two weeks, the carriers will temporarily put in place measures designed to address the government’s safety concerns about the technology, particularly around certain airports.
The Federal Aviation Administration had expressed concerns that the new 5G service uses signals that clash with equipment pilots use to land in poor weather. Officials have said they could restrict the use of that equipment, known as radio altimeters, which could ground or reroute flights under some conditions.
In a letter to the wireless companies on Monday night, federal officials said that absent “unforeseen” safety issues with the technology, they “will not seek or demand any further delays” in turning on the new technology.
“We are confident that your voluntary steps will support the safe coexistence of 5G C-Band deployment and aviation activities, helping to retain America’s economic strength and leadership role around the world,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Stephen Dickson, in a letter to the chief executives of the two companies.
The agreement forestalls a collision this week between AT&T and Verizon, which initially planned to debut the service on Wednesday, and the federal regulators who said they could restrict flights if their concerns were not met. The nation’s airlines had said that the restrictions could disrupt hundreds of thousands of passenger flights, not long after holiday travel was dogged by delays and cancellations driven by staff shortages and weather.
“Last night’s agreement is a significant step in the right direction, and we’re grateful to all parties for their cooperation and good faith,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Tuesday. “This agreement ensures that there will be no disruptions to air operations over the next two weeks and puts us on track to substantially reduce disruptions to air operations when AT&T and Verizon launch 5G on January 19th.”
Under the agreement, the wireless carriers will follow through on their pledge to operate 5G stations at a lower power than they otherwise plan to. They will reduce the power even more around “no more than 50 priority airports,” according to the agreement.
The FAA said it would assess whether some radio altimeters could be safely used even with the 5G service, potentially exempting those devices from future restrictions and limiting the number of planes that would face delays or cancellations.
Airlines for America, a lobbying group, had threatened to go to court to block the new 5G service. In a statement, Nicholas E. Calio, the organization’s chief executive, said it would “continue to work with all stakeholders to help ensure that new 5G service can coexist with aviation safely.”