(Bloomberg) -- AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. have agreed to temporarily delay switching on hundreds of 5G cell towers near U.S. airports in last-minute talks with government officials designed to limit flight disruptions that could have started Wednesday.
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The voluntary delay temporarily solves a concern in the aviation industry about the potential for interference with sensitive navigation equipment used during landings in poor weather. The wireless carriers spent billions of dollars at a government auction last year for the right to use the frequencies for super-fast mobile service.
“We recognize the economic importance of expanding 5G, and we appreciate the wireless companies working with us to protect the flying public and the country’s supply chain,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
The companies will expand the zones around dozens of airports where a new band of 5G signals won’t be allowed, said a person familiar with the talks who wasn’t authorized to speak about them publicly.
Airlines were awaiting details from the FAA’s evaluation of how the agreement would affect aircraft fleet and runway operations at the airports, two people familiar with the situation said. Airlines are preparing for some cancellations Wednesday but are hoping the FAA analysis will mitigate many of the possible groundings, the people said.
Japan Airlines Co. confirmed plans to cancel some U.S. routes this week due to concerns about interference.
The wireless carriers, backed by the Federal Communications Commission, have discounted fears of electrical interference. But the Federal Aviation Administration has warned that flights may have to be diverted or delayed and has repeatedly sought delays in implementing the new service.
As recently as Monday, airline executives warned of “catastrophic disruptions” to flights.
Verizon and AT&T agreed on Jan. 3 to a two-week delay of the new 5G service and another six-month delay for service near 50 airports.
After concerns were raised by the airline industry and aviation groups, Verizon said it would add at least 24 more airports to the list of areas where no new 5G service would be deployed while potential interference issues are being reviewed, Rich Young, a company spokesman said.
New 5G service at the 50 airports is scheduled to start July 5, while the duration of the delays for the additional airports is still in discussion, he said.
Both companies issued statements Tuesday saying they were voluntarily limiting service around airports but didn’t provide details of how long the suspension would last or how big the region around airports would be.
AT&T blasted the FAA and the airline industry for what it called their lack of preparation for Wednesday’s inauguration of the company’s service.
The company said in a statement that it has “voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment.”
President Joe Biden issued a statement Tuesday praising the move. “This agreement 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,” Biden said.
Talks will continue, he said, “until we close the remaining gap and reach a permanent, workable solution around these key airports.”
“This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans,” Biden said.
The latest measures should allow the aviation system to function in coming weeks, but isn’t a permanent solution, Representative Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an emailed statement.
“The FAA needs to definitively determine what long-term changes are needed at these affected airports so that we can move toward a positive solution,” DaFazio said. “Without mitigation, we’re looking at disastrous disruptions to our national airspace system.”
Impacts should be reduced significantly with the latest development, but won’t be eliminated entirely, said the person familiar with the talks.
While there were almost certain to be some limitations on flights that could lead to delays or cancellations without the latest agreement, the extent of the impacts wasn’t clear.
The main limitation on airline flights imposed by the FAA would restrict certain high-risk, low-visibility landings in the presence of 5G signals. The FAA on Sunday announced that about 45% of the U.S. airline fleet was at least partially shielded from the 5G airwaves and wouldn’t face full restrictions.
But the FAA on Friday issued a separate order restricting how Boeing Co. 787s may land if 5G signals are nearby and the agency has said it expects to issue other such advisories.
(Updates with lawmaker comments, background from 10th paragraph.)
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