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5G rollout and airlines: What's at stake on either side amid delay

Yahoo Finance's Dan Howley details why the FCC is delaying the 5G rollout for the next six months, how 5G can impact flights, and whether or not planes will have to be retrofitted.

Video transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: The latest rollout of 5G has led to some disruption in the skies with some flights to and from the US grounded. But what does this all mean for you? And what exactly does 5G technology have to do with flights?

Let's bring in Yahoo Finance's Dan Howley to break things down for us. And this is a conversation that we were really focused on last week because the 5G rollout was delayed a number of times because of concerns from the FAA. Break this down for us.

DAN HOWLEY: That's right, Akiko. And now they're delaying the rollout for another six months. So there's this kind of reprieve that the FAA and FCC and carriers like AT&T and Verizon have gotten for the time being. But this isn't fully fleshed out yet.

So just to give you an idea of what happened and where we stand now, let's go back to December 2020. That's when the FCC was setting up to launch an auction for 5G spectrum. Now, AT&T and Verizon were very keen on getting access to this spectrum because it really is called kind of the Goldilocks spectrum.

Now, both carriers have 5G that's slightly better than 4G LTE that you have now and then a version of 5G that's incredibly fast but has super short range. We're talking like blocks maybe. And the interference with that is also incredibly high. I mean, if someone walked in front of you-- between you and the cell phone antenna-- you're not going to be able to get any kind of 5G.

So this was a version that would eliminate both of those problems. It would provide massive range as well as huge speed boost. So you can understand why they wanted to get that 5G.

But just before the FCC was set to auction that off, the FAA had come forward with a memo saying, look guys, we think that there's going to be problems with this radio spectrum. And that's because it sits incredibly close to the same radio spectrum that these altimeters in these planes use. And so the radio altimeter is essentially a way for the plane to say, well, there's the ground, and here's me, and that's the distance. So it really helps keep planes from hitting the pavement in low visibility conditions.

So this is something that's been known for years. And that's what's so frustrating when you look at the issues that crept up. So fast forward to a few weeks back and what we had was AT&T and Verizon basically agreeing-- at the behest of the Biden administration and the Head of the DOT Pete Buttigieg-- basically saying, you know, look, we really need you guys to hold off on launching your latest versions of 5G.

There were conversations back and forth. And so now where we sit is there are what are called 5G buffer zones around different airports. And those are going to last for six months. More or less what they are is a way for 5G to be deployed but not at its fullest extent.

Now, there's been conversations back and forth about why in Europe they have 5G near their airports and why we don't have it here right now. And the reason is because 5G here, according to the FAA, runs at higher power capabilities. So it is an increased chance of interference. And the way that the antennas are actually set up-- where in Europe they're kind of faced down, here they're facing out to maximize range. And that can also add to potential interference.

But you know, as the FAA does point out, these buffer zones are much smaller than they have in Europe at their existing buildout. So it shouldn't be too big of a problem.

Now, the FAA has said that they've cleared some 78% of flights now-- or planes in the commercial fleet. So what you could do is just get on a plane and essentially fly normally. There are some that are still being looked at to determine if the 5G will actually impact the altimeter. And if they are, then those planes would have to be retrofitted.

But as I said, for the next six months, these carriers have agreed to not fully roll out their 5G around these different airports and will instead lower the power and have these buffer zones that planes can fly into. But as I said, this is something that was known since December 2020, and it all could have been avoided if these two agencies had really kind of coordinated more closely.

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