Officials at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas will continue to keep a “close eye” on the changing dynamics surrounding the nationwide rollout of 5G, or fifth-generation, wireless service and the impacts it’s been rumored to have on air travel.
Representatives from wireless providers AT&T and Verizon said Tuesday that they will delay the launch of the service near certain U.S. airports because it could interfere will aircraft technology and, potentially, cause widespread flight disruptions.
The overall 5G launch is still expected to take place early today, though 5G cell towers within a 2-mile radius of certain federally designated runways will not be turned on.
Joe Rajchel, a spokesman for the Las Vegas airport, said in an email Tuesday that it is his understanding Harry Reid International is among the airports that will be spared.
The decision by the providers came after the Biden administration intervened to broker a settlement between a number of airlines and the telecoms over the implementation of the new service.
The wireless companies have said that 5G technology will not interfere with aircraft electronics, though a group of airline CEOs voiced doubts about that this week in the form of a joint letter to federal officials.
In the letter, the CEOs of 10 passenger and cargo airlines, including American, Delta, United and Southwest said “the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded.”
The executives went on to warn federal officials that “the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt” if the 5G rollout were to be allowed near major airports.
Following the announcement by AT&T and Verizon, President Joe Biden said that the decision “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery” from the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden noted that more than 90% of towers in the country will move forward with the 5G changes.
The new high-speed service uses a segment of the radio spectrum that is close to that used by altimeters, which are devices that measure the height of aircraft above the ground.
The devices help pilots land when visibility is poor, and they link to other systems on planes.
Rajchel said low-visibility situations for pilots occur infrequently in Las Vegas, meaning the 5G rollout might have a limited impact at the city’s airport if and when it’s employed.
“While there are still unknowns, the impact at Harry Reid International from 5G implementation is anticipated to be minimal and should affect landings on only one of our lesser utilized runways,” Rajchel said in an email. “Still, with its potential to affect the national aviation network, this is a development we will continue to keep a close eye on.”
The showdown between the airline and telecom industries and their rival regulators — the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission — threatened to further disrupt the aviation industry, which has been hammered by the pandemic for nearly two years.
This was a crisis that was years in the making.
The airlines and the FAA say that they have tried to raise alarms about potential interference from 5G, but the FCC ignored them.
The telecoms, the FCC and their supporters argue that C-Band and aircraft altimeters operate far enough apart on the radio spectrum to avoid interference. They also say that the aviation industry has known about C-Band technology for several years but did nothing to prepare — airlines chose not to upgrade altimeters that might be subject to interference, and the FAA failed to begin surveying equipment on planes until the last few weeks.
Randall Berry, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University, likened the interference issue to two stations that overlap on the radio dial. The FCC-determined separation “may be be enough for some (altimeters) but not for others,” he said.
One solution could be outfitting all altimeters with good filters against interference, Berry said, although there could be a fight over who pays for that work — airlines or telecom companies.
After rival T-Mobile got what is called mid-band spectrum from its acquisition of Sprint, AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars for C-Band spectrum in a government auction run by the FCC to shore up their own mid-band needs, then spent billions more to build out new networks that they planned to launch in early December.
In response to concern by the airlines, however, they initially agreed to delay the service until early January.
Late on New Year’s Eve, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson asked the companies for another delay, warning of “unacceptable disruption” to air service.
AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg rejected the request in a letter that had a scolding, even mocking tone. But they had second thoughts after intervention that reached the White House. The CEOs agreed to the second, shorter delay but implied that there would be no more compromises.
In that deal, the telecoms agreed to reduce the power of their networks near 50 airports for six months, similar to wireless restrictions in France. In exchange, the FAA and the Transportation Department promised not to further oppose the rollout of 5G C-Band.
Biden praised that deal too, but the airlines weren’t satisfied with the agreement, regarding it as a victory for the telecoms that didn’t adequately address their concerns.