Congress sparks controversy over 5G service near airports

Lawmakers on Thursday wondered aloud how a showdown between two federal agencies over the rollout of a new high-speed wireless service reached crisis proportions last month, but they were short of answers to a dispute that raised concerns about interference with key equipment on some planes.

Some flights have been canceled since Verizon and AT&T switched on their new networks last month, but predictions of widespread cancellations turned out to be wrong. The Federal Aviation Administration has cleared 90% of the country’s aviation fleet to land in poor visibility at airports near 5G cell towers.

Those approvals are made each month, plane by plane, based on the model of radio altimeter they use to measure their height above the ground. Some “underperforming” aircraft are still limited, and a permanent fleet-wide solution is likely at least a year away, FAA administrator Stephen Dickson said during a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing.

The CEOs of American Airlines and United Airlines have said they do not expect any more disruptions. However, more than half of regional airlines’ planes are restricted during inclement weather, said Faye Malarkey Black, president of a smaller airline trade group, some of which operate flights for American Eagle, United Express and Delta Connection.

Black said there are still cancellations and more than a quarter of flights at the three major airports in New York City areas are operated by smaller planes that cannot land there in inclement weather due to 5G restrictions.

Verizon and AT&T agreed to two delays before launching most of their planned new 5G service on Jan. 19, except near airports, where they agreed not to deploy new cell towers for the time being.

Dozens of flights were canceled due to concerns about 5G after the services went live, but widespread cancellations were avoided.

The current, temporary solution came after the White House intervened to resolve a lack of cooperation between the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission, which threatened to cause massive disruption to airlines and passengers.

Rep. John Katko (RN.Y.) told Dickson that the FAA’s last-minute guidelines on working around 5G indicate “you really didn’t have a plan and didn’t understand the gravity of the situation ahead of time.”

Dickson said the FAA could not authorize low-visibility flights near the new signals until it received information from the telecom companies about the location, height and strength of their 5G towers.

The FAA chief said regulators and experts from both sectors are now working together. Last week, the FAA said new data from the companies paved the way for activating more towers near airports.

House Transportation Committee chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., blamed the clash on the FCC, which approved plans by Verizon and AT&T to launch faster and more reliable 5G services using the C-Band portion. of the radio spectrum close to the range used by aircraft altimeters, which are critical for landing in poor visibility.

DeFazio said he and aviation interests had expressed concerns about potential interference for years, but the FCC ignored them and auctioned off 5G spectrum without making sure there would be no interference with aviation.

“Having a broken call is much less serious than a broken down plane,” he said.

The FCC has said there is enough buffer between the C-Band and the radio altimeters to avoid interference.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel was invited to testify but had a conflict, according to an agency spokesperson, who declined to describe the conflict. He said Rosenworcel spoke separately on Wednesday with DeFazio and the chairman of the aviation subcommittee, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).

The FCC and telcos say 40 other countries have rolled out C-Band 5G service with no reports of radio interference with aircraft. Aviation groups say those countries have lower power 5G signals or put other restrictions on the service to avoid interference, a claim being disputed by the telecom industry.

Meredith Baker, president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assn., said a 2020 aviation group’s study, which raised serious concerns about interference, was flawed and biased in presenting worst-case scenarios.

DeFazio and Larsen refuted that aviation safety requires that even unlikely events be considered.

“That’s what we’re planning — the worst case,” DeFazio said.

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