Midband 5G has long been the most alluring flavor of the technology. Unlike lowband 5G, it supports impressive speeds. And unlike highband, millimeter wave 5G, it covers wide geographic areas.
Midband 5G has often been described as the "real" 5G due to the "Goldilocks" nature of spectrum that's not too low and not too high but juuuuuust right. For years, executives in the US wireless industry – including Verizon, specifically – have been yearning for the chance to launch widespread midband 5G networks.
That finally happened this week.
But what should have been a cause for celebration instead turned into one of the most incredible public relations catastrophes the US wireless industry has ever seen.
Concerns that midband 5G could literally kill you
As noted by the Associated Press, a top airline out of the United Arab Emirates announced this week it would halt flights to several American cities due to "operational concerns associated with the planned deployment of 5G mobile network services in the US at certain airports." Meaning, it diverted or canceled flights over fears they would crash.
The airline, Emirates, was not alone.
Japan's All Nippon Airways warned that "radio waves from the 5G wireless service may interfere with aircraft altimeters." As a result, it, too, canceled a number of flights to the US.
As reported by Reuters, other international airlines that canceled or modified flights this week due to 5G concerns included Germany's Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, Air India, Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Korean Air.
Why? Because there are widespread worries in the airline industry that 5G operations in a midband block of the spectrum called the C-band will mess up radio altimeters in an aircraft. Those are used to help pilots land in low-visibility conditions like fog and rain.
According to airline industry publication The Air Current, 5G tests in the C-band spectrum may have caused multiple aircraft to record the wrong altitude at an airport in Florida. Citing unnamed pilots who experienced the situation, aircraft altitude recordings abruptly ran down to zero, generating loud aural warnings: PULL UP WHOOP WHOOP DON'T SINK TOO LOW GEAR.
That's precisely the problem that some airline officials are worried about. And it's why the US airline industry basically conducted a high-stakes, high-profile standoff with AT&T and Verizon over the past few months. And, ultimately, the threat of airplane crashes – however remote – is what caused both operators to indefinitely delay the launch of 5G in C-band spectrum near dozens of US airports.
The only problem is that they announced their delay a little too late for some international flights this week. "The last-minute postponement happened too late to stop the crews being sent out for today's (return) flight. It just made it a nightmare," a pilot with a major European airline told Reuters.
The blame game
Citing unnamed FCC officials, Law360 reported that executives in the wireless industry are "pissed" about the situation and "apoplectic" about airline concerns of 5G interference that should have been addressed years ago. The publication noted that wireless industry executives are upset that "the spectrum management within the [US] government is a mess right now."
That mess was on clear display after President Biden essentially promised earlier this month that there would be no more problems between the US wireless industry and the US aviation industry, only to have those problems result in the cancellation of dozens of international flights. (It's worth noting that few domestic flights appear to have been affected, according to PCMag, likely because of the type of aircraft involved.)
Republican members of the FCC put the blame squarely on the Biden administration. "The Biden administration's botched handling of C-band 5G offerings highlights a failure of competent leadership," tweeted FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr.
But analyst Tim Farrar with TMF Associates wrote that much of the blame likely rests on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is currently headed by an appointee of former President Trump.
Research firm Strand Consult certainly agreed with that assessment.
"The FAA and the aviation industry have known about 5G in the C-band for years but said and did little to nothing to indicate there was a problem. If 5G was a legitimate safety issue, aviation actors would have acted sooner to prevent deployment in the US and around the world. Instead, the FAA and the aviation industry sensed an opportunity. By waiting until the last moment, they could exploit the situation to their advantage. Further this behavior fits with the FAA's pattern of outsourcing regulation and symbolic safety posturing, rather than the pursuit of legitimate safety," Strand Consult wrote in a blistering post on its website. "There's a term for what the FAA and the aviation industry is doing: blackmail. It is a criminal offense, but 'independent' regulators like the FAA with limited congressional or White House oversight can get away with it. In the process, the FAA gives its regulated industries cover."
The Boeing equation
But if critics were looking for a focal point for their anger, they didn't need to look too far.
"On January 18, 2022, Boeing has notified us that 5G signals for US mobile phones, which will begin operating in the US on January 19, may interfere with the radio wave altimeter installed on the Boeing 777. Based on that information, we were forced to cancel some flights to the US mainland on January 19," Japan Airlines wrote in a statement after it resumed its flights to the US. "Today on January 19, we have received confirmation from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) that there is no longer a problem with the operation of the Boeing 777 and we will resume service to the US mainland with Boeing 777 from January 20."
Other international airlines, including All Nippon Airway, issued similar statements.
Boeing told Reuters that it was working with all parties on a "data-driven solution for the long-term that ensures all commercial airplane models can operate safely as 5G is deployed."
And Delta, a domestic airline, warned that the 5G issue needs more study. "Delta has been evaluating its aircraft systems to ascertain whether those planes are safe to fly near airports where the 5G service is being rolled out. At the same time, we are committed to remaining fully compliant with the guidance of the FAA," the company said in a statement.
But Emirates President Tim Clark offered a far more cutting take. "This is one of the most delinquent, utterly irresponsible issue subjects, call it what you like, I've seen in my aviation career because it involves organs of government, manufacturers, science, etc.," he told CNN.
In a statement, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the issue must ultimately be resolved by the FAA. "It is essential that the FAA now complete this process with both care and speed," she said.
The 10% solution
For AT&T, a delay in the launch of its C-band services near airports doesn't seem to be much of a concession. Company officials this week told Cnet that AT&T would not meet its goal of covering 70 to 75 million people with C-band connections by the end of 2022. And AT&T's Chris Sambar declined to offer a new 5G buildout target. Sambar blamed supply chain issues for AT&T's C-band buildout delay.
AT&T this week also said it will only launch C-band services in "limited parts" of eight US cities. The operator said it would work to expand that coverage in the coming weeks and months.
It's worth noting that AT&T's Sambar recently took over the operator's 5G network buildout from Mo Katibeh, who abruptly left AT&T for RingCentral earlier this year.
Thus, that positions Verizon as the real driver of the C-band debacle in the US. The company spent around $53 billion on C-band spectrum licenses last year, and promised to spend billions more during 2021 in order to upgrade up to 8,000 cell towers with C-band equipment by the beginning of 2022.
And Verizon was primed to light up all those towers – covering around 100 million Americans – with C-band connections this week. Verizon even hosted a star-studded launch event to outline its new C-band service plans and expansion strategy.
But the airline industry managed to strangle that launch. Verizon now expects to cover only 90 million Americans with C-band – it won't turn on roughly 10% of its cell towers that are near airports. According to the Wall Street Journal, the situation affects 10 AT&T towers and hundreds of Verizon towers. Nonetheless, it's an important exemption for Verizon considering air travelers are heavy smartphone users.
Moreover, Verizon's heated rival T-Mobile continues to build out its own midband 5G network unimpeded. That's because T-Mobile is using 2.5GHz midband spectrum that isn't anywhere near the spectrum used by aircraft radio altimeters. The C-band sits much closer to the spectrum used by radio altimeters.
So what does Verizon think of all this? Could the company have done anything different to avoid this whole situation? Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg declined to discuss the topic with CNBC. "It's not for me to have any opinions," he said in response to repeated questions on the issue.
According to the Verge, Verizon customers are reporting 5G speeds on the C-band spectrum between 200 Mbit/s and 800 Mbit/s.
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