AT&T, Verizon Delay 5G Rollout in the Name of Airline Safety

Federal Aviation Administration Verizon AT&T 5G Pause
The Federal Aviation Administration thanked Verizon and AT&T on Monday for agreeing to a two-week pause on 5G network rollout amid air travel safety concerns. A Boeing 737 jet is pictured during a test flight at Boeing Field near Seattle, Washington, on Sept. 30, 2020. Mike Siegel/Getty

Verizon and AT&T have agreed to temporarily pause rollout of their 5G networks over concerns about air travel safety only one day after refusing a new delay.

The telecom companies said on Monday night that they would abide by a request from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to stall the rollout, which had been set to take place on Wednesday after already being paused for one month.

Only one day earlier, the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon sent a letter to Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Steve Dickson to inform them that they were refusing a further delay.

While it was not clear why the companies decided to change course on Monday, the FAA quickly thanked them for the delay and for laying out plans that could help mitigate the safety concerns.

"Safety is the core of our mission and this guides all of our decisions," the FAA said in a statement obtained by Newsweek. "The FAA thanks AT&T and Verizon for agreeing to a voluntary delay and for their proposed mitigations."

"We look forward to using the additional time and space to reduce flight disruptions associated with this 5G deployment," the statement continued.

The delay was announced amid concerns that the 5G networks could interfere with vital transmissions from radio altimeters, devices that help to avoid crashes by remotely measuring the distance between airplanes and the ground.

In their Sunday letter initially refusing a further delay, Verizon Communications CEO Hans Vestberg and AT&T CEO John Stankey noted that the 5G networks had already been deployed in other countries with no reports of accidents caused by the technology.

"The laws of physics are the same in the United States and France," the CEOs wrote. "If U.S. airlines are permitted to operate flights every day in France, then the same operating conditions should allow them to do so in the United States."

The letter also included a proposal to not deploy the networks around airports for six months, similar to measures previously taken to allow 5G and aviation concerns to coexist in France.

The safety concerns are due to the new networks operating on so-called "C-band" frequencies. The FAA has warned that the networks have the potential to interfere with altimeter systems because they operate over a similar, but not identical, range of frequencies.

AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars each to buy the rights to use the C-band frequencies from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during an auction last February.

T-Mobile also purchased frequencies during the auction but its network is not part of the air safety dispute because it operates on frequencies that are far removed from those used by the altimeters.

Airline industry trade association Airlines for America filed an emergency request with the FCC to halt the 5G rollout last week, arguing that the agency had not "provided a reasoned analysis of why it has rejected the evidence submitted by the aviation interests."

Following Monday's delay, Verizon and AT&T's 5G networks are set to debut Jan. 19.