C-Band Deployment: Another Delay on the Road to Potential Resolution

After first rejecting a request from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administrator Steve Dickson to delay the C-band deployments scheduled to start Jan. 5, 2022, AT&T and Verizon relented and agreed to a two-week delay.

Impact: The delay until Jan. 19, 2022, is the second the two wireless carriers have agreed to on their way to incorporating billions of dollars of C-band spectrum into their 5G networks. The first was twice as long, extending 30 days from the original deployment date of Dec. 5, 2021. While AT&T and Verizon still maintain that the delays have not yet damaged their bottom lines, executives from both companies made it clear they are not happy with the ongoing situation and hinted that additional delays could start to become a drag economically.

Part of their unhappiness no doubt stems from the fact that T-Mobile must relish the problems its two main competitors are running into as they try to deploy mid-band 5G spectrum. The longer it takes AT&T and Verizon to get C-band spectrum up and running in their networks, the further ahead T-Mobile gets with its own mid-band-centric Ultra Capacity 5G. So further delays not only have the potential to hurt AT&T and Verizon, they also likely benefit T-Mobile. In fact, Verizon was so prepared for the Jan. 5 launch date that it had to cancel a celebratory event scheduled for Jan. 4, although still went ahead with the unveiling of new updates and service options for its mobile and fixed wireless 5G plans.

In a formal letter, CEOs John Stankey and Hans Vestberg argued against pushing back the deployment date again to Buttigieg and the FAA, writing that AT&T and Verizon had already explained the mitigation efforts they were willing to implement. Those include reducing power in the band for six months and not deploying the spectrum around airports during that time, to assuage concerns about potential interference on airline operations in the band. They also pointed out that further delays could end up negatively impacting the U.S. economy and potentially disrupt connectivity if a potential move back to remote learning were to be required as part of the Omicron variant surge.

Other executives for both companies were more outrightly dismissive of the interference arguments and hinted that the airline industry was prolonging the process to try to force the wireless industry to pay for upgrading the aviation equipment involved, i.e. obsolete altimeters, that might bear the brunt of any interference in exchange for being able to launch C-band spectrum.

After a few days of back and forth between the companies and federal officials following the release of the executives’ letter, AT&T and Verizon agreed to the second delay amid promises that it would be last time things got pushed back. These guarantees that they would be able to launch the C-band at the end of the two weeks, barring what the government called any “unforeseen aviation safety issues,” led to the change of heart. Central to the agreement is a path out of the back and forth surrounding the question of the C-band causing interference for aviation operations in the band.

As part of the delay, AT&T and Verizon reconfirmed their commitment to establishing protection zones around airports for six months, modeling guidelines already used in France and other European countries. The zones will be put in place around 50 major U.S. airports as identified by the FAA where potential disruption would have the most impact. For its part, the FAA said it would use the additional two weeks to find ways to reduce potential flight disruptions caused by the C-band launch and figure out how large the mitigation zones should be to prevent interference.

None of this agreement negates the fact that the stand-off between government agencies over something that should have been dealt with well before it was time to start deploying the C-band has not been good for anyone’s reputation. But the FCC may have the most work to do to recover from the lack of coordination that led us to this point. At the moment, it looks like the FCC allowed itself to get pushed around by the FAA and by the airlines themselves rather than working with the industry to get everything resolved before it was time to deploy the spectrum.

Telecom and wireless providers can’t be happy to see their interests not being upheld as equally important as those from another industry, when the airlines should have already been working on updating their equipment well in advance of the C-band deployment dates. The dispute also throws into question who really controls U.S. spectrum policy, something that’s up until now been the domain of the FCC. Without the FCC reasserting itself rather than letting wireless carriers fend for themselves in arguments with other federal agencies, it will likely become more difficult to get additional spectrum approved for 5G use.

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