Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

According to the FAA, AT&T and Verizon will be able to fully roll out their 5G C-band networks by July 2023, after multiple delays due to concerns about the radio waves affecting vital safety equipment on planes. The plan, which the FAA says is the result of collaboration between regulators, carriers, and the aviation industry, will allow carriers to turn on their equipment in "carefully considered phases" as they retrofit their planes with equipment that will mitigate any potential interference from cellular signals.

The FAA protested and the carriers agreed to create buffer zones around dozens of airports. The agreement was supposed to last until July 2022, but it only lasted until that point. It wasn't clear how the problem would be solved by then. The carriers have agreed to limit their C-band in certain areas for another year.

Craig Silliman is the chief administrative officer for the company.

Under this agreement reached with the FAA, we will lift the voluntary limitations on our 5G network deployment around airports in a staged approach over the coming months meaning even more consumers and businesses will benefit from the tremendous capabilities of 5G technology.

Richard Alexander is a spokesman for AT&T.

Through close coordination with the FAA over the last several months, we have developed a more tailored approach to controlling signal strength around runways that allows us to activate more towers and increase signal strength. Though our FCC licenses allow us to fully deploy much-needed C-Band spectrum right now, we have chosen in good faith to implement these more tailored precautionary measures so that airlines have additional time to retrofit equipment. We appreciate the FAA’s support of this approach, and we will continue to work with the aviation community as we move toward the expiration of all such voluntary measures by next summer.

After airlines and regulators warned that the signals could interfere with airplanes' radar altimeters, the C-band spectrum was turned into a complete mess. The industry had been preparing for it for months and the FAA had made multiple agreements with carriers to delay it. There was a scramble to change plans when the time came for the networks to be switched on.

The changes weren't good for carriers. Being able to use C-band allows carriers to make 5G a step up from LTE in places that are impractical. The rights to use the spectrum were obtained by AT&T and Verizon. Customers living around airports haven't gotten to be a part of the roll out thanks to the exclusion zones.

There are still several airports in the US where only 81 percent of aircraft models are cleared to land in weather conditions where a radar altimeter is important. The work the FAA did to make sure that the most popular jets were safe to fly in most conditions was not taken into account. Smaller regional airlines were hit harder by the restrictions and have not been helped by these efforts. In a House hearing about the hubbub in February, the FAA administrator said that new safety standards for altimeters wouldn't be in place until later in the decade.

The FAA’s map of airports with 100 percent clearance (green) and 81 percent clearance (yellow). Missing airports lack the necessary runway systems or aren’t in 5G deployment areas.
Image: FAA

The fact that the agency predicts that carriers and major airlines will be able to move forward by July 2023 does speak to the fact that companies and regulators have been working quickly to fix the issue.

The FAA doesn't make it clear who is paying for equipment to be retrofitted onto the planes, or which areas will be the first to get the C-band roll out. Everyone is working together to get the problem solved.