WASHINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) – AT&T (T.N) and Verizon Communications (VZ.N) on Tuesday agreed to temporarily defer turning on some wireless towers near key airports to avert a significant disruption to U.S. flights.
President Joe Biden hailed the agreement saying it “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.”
The carriers and the administration have agreed to work together to quickly address the issues and create a process to allow the remaining towers to be deployed, sources briefed on the matter said.
Biden said he had instructed officials to find “a permanent, workable solution around these key airports.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has warned that 5G wireless interference could affect sensitive airplane instruments such as radio altimeters and significantly hamper low-visibility operations.
The FAA said it anticipated despite the announcement “there will be some impacts due to the limitations of some radio altimeters.”
This is the third time that AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay deployment of the new C-Band 5G wireless service. The companies in November postponed deployment by 30 days until Jan. 5. Earlier this month, they again agreed to delay deployment until Jan. 19.
Details of the latest agreement were not disclosed, but airlines in recent days had proposed temporarily not deploying just under 10% of towers, or about 500, sources told Reuters. Nearly all but a handful of the impacted sites are Verizon towers.
Still the FAA and airlines must grapple with how to resolve the concerns permanently — especially since AT&T and Verizon earlier agreed to take some measures to reduce interference for six months.
Despite the agreement, major foreign carriers including Air India and Japan’s biggest airline, ANA Holdings (9202.T) said they had canceled some U.S.-bound flights because of possible 5G interference.
ANA said on its website it had canceled some Boeing 777 flights after Boeing “announced flight restrictions on all airlines operating the Boeing 777 aircraft.” Boeing did not immediately comment.
Airlines are still likely to cancel some additional flights in the coming hours as they wait for formal guidance from regulators on the announcements from Verizon and AT&T. They warned Monday of “catastrophic” impacts. Airlines are concerned that the issue could prevent them from flying Boeing 777s and other widebody jets to many key airports.
The chief executives of major U.S. passenger and cargo carriers on Monday said new 5G service could render a significant number of widebody aircraft unusable, “could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas” and cause chaos for U.S. flights.
The airlines asked Sunday “that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles (3.2 km) of airport runways” at some key airports.
Verizon’s rollout plan is much more aggressive than AT&T’s. It is significantly impacted by the Biden administration request to delay using some towers near airport runways.
AT&T and Verizon won significant C-Band spectrum in an $80 billion auction last year.
Verizon Chief Executive Hans Vestberg told employees on Jan. 4 the carrier saw no aviation safety issue with 5G and had resisted prior delays, officials told Reuters.
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Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker
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