AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg both wrote a joint letter firmly refusing a request from US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson to delay the rollout of 5G services on the C-Band spectrum. One day later, both companies completely reversed course and agreed to a two-week halt on all C-Band rollouts.
The past several months have been a tumultuous time for the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) plans to let commercial entities operate 5G services on the C-band spectrum in the US. Despite the regulator's initial claims that such services could operate safely, the FAA, several airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and even air travel worker unions staunchly oppose C-Band rollout. This resistance focuses on lingering concerns that the frequencies C-Band equipment operates within could potentially interfere with automated flight and landing systems on aircraft.
The FCC remains firm on its stance that its initial investigation, and subsequent approval of C-Band use, was correct, and that no danger exists. On its side are several of its senior alumni and industry groups like CTIA.
This regulatory tension has already led to an initial delay by AT&T and Verizon, with both telecom companies pegging January 5, 2022, as the new debut date for their respective C-Band services. However, since choosing that date, little movement has been made in the FAA/FCC conflict, leading to the aforementioned request by the Transportation Secretary and FAA head.
The initial response to this request from the CEOs was to call their acquiescence to any additional delay an "irresponsible abdication of the operating control required to deploy world-class and globally competitive communications networks." Despite this vehement denial, both CEOs have now given their approval to that supposed abdication less than 24 hours later.
In a statement to Engadget, Verizon said that it has "agreed to a two-week delay which promises the certainty of bringing this nation our game-changing 5G network in January, delivered over America's best and most reliable wireless network." Meanwhile, AT&T told the tech blog that it has also agreed to the two-week pushback, saying that it is "confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues."
The reason for the rapid and complete reversal remains unknown. Likely, the possible liability of the public safety issues posed by potential interference, and the costly disruptions to air travel were a factor. More probably, the thinly-veiled hints in the FAA's request that legal action would follow, should the carriers not agree to a delay, was a major drive in this decision as well.
Now that the delay has been approved, the agencies and carriers will spend the next two weeks undertaking a plan to identify "priority airports" that will be excluded from the initial rollout. If all goes well, the agencies expect to be able to allow C-Band deployments on a rolling basis around the end of March 2022. However, if their investigation finds any "unforeseen technical challenges or new safety concerns," this too could change.