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How the new (delayed) 5G rollout could ruin your travel plans

AT&T and Verizon are pausing some parts of Wednesday's rollout after warnings from major airlines.

TAMPA, Fla. — If you're flying soon, you might want to pay close attention to your flight status. 

The airline industry warns a major step forward for cell phone companies could have unintended consequences on U.S. air travel, possibly stranding passengers in places they don't want to be.

And, the impacts could be felt right here in the Tampa Bay region.

Top executives at the nation's largest airlines are warning CBS News of a "catastrophic disruption" if an advancement in 5G technology rolls out without permanently limiting it near airports.

On Wednesday, Verizon and AT&T plan to activate their new C-Band 5G service, which has already been delayed twice from its original scheduled rollout date in December. On Tuesday afternoon, however, both companies announced that they would alter their plans slightly for Wednesday's launch.

In a statement, AT&T said it had agreed to temporarily pause its plan to turn on some towers around certain airport runways.

"We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner," an AT&T spokesperson wrote. "We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers."

On its website, Verizon said it would temporarily limit deployments near certain airports, as well.

"As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports," Verizon wrote. "The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries."

So what is going on?

You might not think about it when you're surfing the internet, but there is only a limited number of radio frequencies that carry data to your mobile device. 

Those frequencies exist on a spectrum.

Early last year, our government auctioned off a range on that spectrum. That mid-range bandwidth was dubbed C-Band. According to Reuters, it sold to phone carriers for roughly $80 billion.

OK, but what does that have to do with airplanes?

The new high-speed 5G service would use part of the spectrum that critics worry is too close to the one used by an airplane's radar altimeter, which is the device that measures its height off the ground. Such altimeters are a key element of automated landings, which some commercial airplanes conduct in bad weather with low visibility.

With that in mind, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a directive in December. It told airlines not to use planes that could have interference from 5G services for certain landings.

Last month, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told Reuters that the FAA directive regarding this situation would basically stop flights from using radio altimeters at about 40 of the biggest airports in the country and disrupt up to 4 percent of daily flights.

That may seem like a modest percentage. But, it comes as airlines are already canceling flights while battling pandemic-related staffing shortages and poor weather conditions. When all the problems are added up, you could be looking at some serious travel woes.

There may be some hope, though. The FAA has identified and approved two particular radio altimeter models that it says pilots will be able to keep using for low-visibility landings after the 5G update rolls out.

"This combination of aircraft and altimeter approval opens up runways at as many as 48 of the 88 airports most directly affected by 5G C-band interference," the FAA explained in a statement.

But, even the FAA acknowledged that flights at some airports will likely still be impacted by interference. Leaders with American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines have all warned that many travelers will be essentially "grounded" unless there are clearances for some of their major hubs.

If you're sitting here thinking, but wait: Don't I already have 5G? You might. But, it's slightly more complicated than that. As Reuters explains, cell phone carriers know that the service is faster at higher frequencies on that spectrum we mentioned. So, to give customers the "full value" from their 5G phones, the outlet says carriers want to use this C-Band space starting Wednesday.

Speaking of the carriers, they say this isn't going to be nearly the issue that the airlines think. Verizon and AT&T point to the fact that C-Band 5G technology is already used in more than three dozen other countries.

But, as Reuters notes, those European 5G frequencies are at a lower frequency on the spectrum. That's because, back in 2019, the European Union set different standards for mid-range 5G frequencies. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency told Reuters the current concerns are very specific to U.S. airspace.

As a precaution in the U.S., AT&T and Verizon have agreed to have so-called "buffer zones" around 50 airports, where the C-Band power would be temporarily reduced through July 5.

Still, airlines have concerns about what the wireless companies are doing. American Airlines Chief Operating Officer David Seymour released a statement regarding the updated 5G C-Band rollout, saying he was incredibly disappointed that the aviation industry could be facing such a disruption.

"We’re still working through the total impact this will have on our operation," Seymour said. "Until a long-term technical solution is developed and implemented and as long as 5G is deployed, we anticipate we’ll experience delays, diversions and cancellations that are well beyond our control."

Nearly a dozen airline executives, including with American Airlines, recently signed a letter to the FAA, FCC, the National Economic Council Director, and the Department of Transportation Secretary over the rollout. 

The letter asks the rollout to exclude a two-mile radius of airport runways. Airlines for America said this change would allow pilots to safely land and new services to still be implemented.

"This will allow 5G to be deployed while avoiding harmful impacts on the aviation industry, traveling public, supply chain, vaccine distribution, our workforce and broader economy," a portion of the letter said. 

"The ripple effects across both passenger and cargo operations, our workforce and the broader economy are simply incalculable. Every one of the passenger and cargo carriers will be struggling to get people, shipments, planes and crews where they need to be. To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt."

What does this mean for Tampa?

Tampa International Airport was among the airports that the FAA issued a series of restrictions to, as a result of the updated broadband technology. The FAA told TPA that radio altimeters, on some of the planes that fly there, can't be relied on during low-visibility approaches if there is any 5G interference.

"This means that during certain conditions, such foggy or stormy weather, airports could experience a higher than usual number of delays, cancellations and diversions due to FAA restrictions on commercial aircraft. TPA – along with other U.S. airports and airline and airport industry groups – has been studying and following the issue closely to determine what, if any, impacts the 5G rollout and FAA restrictions may cause," the airport wrote in a statement posted online.

In very low visibility conditions at TPA, some planes will likely have to divert to other airports or be delayed until conditions improve. This would impact landings only – not departures, TPA says. But, an airline could choose to cancel a flight to Tampa altogether if anticipated conditions were going to prevent the flight from landing once it got there. Those sorts of decisions would have ripple effects.

Alright, so how many flights would this impact? Well, the airport typically sees low-visibility conditions on about 20 days per year, mostly between December and February. Typically, it happens in the late night or early morning hours and not during the airport's busiest hours.

Between December 2020 and December 2021, only 166 aircraft landed at TPA during the Category II and III low visibility conditions – which are the ones we're talking about. Of those, 119 were commercial planes, 16 were cargo jets, and 31 were general aviation aircraft. In other words, only 0.18 percent of all arrivals landed in those conditions.

That might not sound like a lot.

But, again, the concern is ripple effects.

"Along with TPA’s flight arrivals being impacted during low visibility conditions, the Airport could also see an uptick in diverted aircraft coming to TPA from other airports in our region when those airports have low visibility operations," the airport said. "Also, commuting airline crew members attempting to transit to hubs for their trips could be adversely affected by delays and cancellations in other parts of the country, further driving system delays and cancellations at airports everywhere, including at TPA."

You may remember how TPA proudly became the first airport in the country to offer 5G technology. If so, you should know: this is actually different from what the FAA is now concerned about.

"TPA’s 5G distributed antenna system does not operate within the C-Band spectrum," the airport explained. "It is believed there are possibly cell towers off property within the arrival flight corridor that may operate within the C-Band spectrum and are largely the reasons why TPA is subject to the FAA’s limitations on low visibility operations."

Having said that, TPA has played a key role in preparing for this C-Band development. In fact, it was one of four airports that took part in a nationwide tabletop exercise that was run by the FAA earlier this month. The goal was to study to possible "domino effects" of limiting low-visibility landings because of the 5G C-Band rollout.

"The situation is complex and evolving daily, and TPA will continue to stay involved at the national level, as well as remaining in close contact with its airport and aviation industry groups and the congressional delegation on the matter," the airport added.

The below video from the Wall Street Journal was made in 2019. But it still provides a good explanation of how the future of 5G innovation depends on spectrum access.