AT&T, Verizon Compromise on Airport 5G Controversy, Launch 'Secret Sauce' C-Band

C-band could create new use cases for businesses. But do partners actually want to sell 5G?

James Anderson, Senior News Editor

January 20, 2022

10 Min Read

Business customers gained access to a crucial component of 5G networking on Wednesday amid concerns over how the 5G rollout impacts airplanes.

AT&T and Verizon both switched on 5G services that use “C-band” spectrum, two weeks after pausing the deployment amid an outcry from airlines and regulators about how the service could interfere with flights. However, both wireless providers agreed not to switch on the service in “buffer zones” in close proximity to certain airports.

AT&T and Verizon have already deployed 5G services using mmWave, also known as high-band, spectrum, but C-band, which is part of the mid-band spectrum, provides a more consistent mix of geographical coverage and speed.

Max Silber, MetTel‘s vice president of mobility and IoT, said business mobile users with 5G-enabled phones will see improved network access and speeds.


MetTel’s Max Silber

“Businesses have lagged in the deployment of 5G capable phones because they didn’t really see the benefit of a slightly faster network compared to 4G LTE. 5G C-band will significantly improve network access and speed, in some cases as much as 10 times over LTE,” Silber told Channel Futures. “That makes for a strong business case to enable connectivity for work-from-home employees and verticals with large field forces like health care, trucking and field services.”

Channel partners and analysts agree that the 5G expansion helps move the technology into more actionable customer use cases.

Safety Debate

Despite the eagerness of mobile operators to fire up C-band spectrum, aviation companies and regulators have warned that C-band can interfere with a plane’s radio altimeter (which it uses to measure altitude). Indeed, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it raised the issue as early as 2015.

A lead pilot working off Boeing Field in Seattle told Channel Futures that his crew has already experienced problems due to C-band. He explained that while older airplanes may experience minimal issues, more advanced planes that use a fly-by-wire system “get rocked.”

“This is a big problem. 5G C-band needs to be shut off immediately until we understand its effects,” the pilot said. “… Airplanes go through years of certification testing to simulate all different kinds of scenarios but in this case we have done zero testing. It’s all by the seat of our pants.”

Verizon and AT&T have protested that C-band spectrum has worked near airports in 40 other countries, including China and South Korea.

“We have 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, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment. 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 said.

The FAA on Wednesday announced that its new approvals allowed approximately 62% of the U.S. commercial fleet to make low-visibility landings at C-band adjacent airports. The FAA has cleared five different types of altimeters. This news is a development from Jan. 5, when the agency said that 88 airports would not have been available for such landings.

Jason Leigh is research manager for mobility and 5G at IDC. He emphasized that the airport snafu has not paused the rollout of 5G — only the rollout of 5G “super close” to the airports.


IDC’s Jason Leigh

“By and large, they’re still building out the spectrum. They’re installing the infrastructure. It’s in place,” Leigh told Channel Futures. “It’s simply a matter of when we get to turn these radios on.”


Leigh initially thought this issue would find a quick resolution when it first arose; however, he said the wireless providers and their counterparts in aviation will need to work out an agreement over time.

Christopher Whitaker, who leads Telarus‘ mobility practice, agreed that …

… all parties will need to work toward a solution.


Telarus’ Christopher Whitaker

“Progress and change are rarely easy and not mired with challenges. This will be worked out in due time. In other countries, they have addressed this in various ways: lower power levels, antenna placement and angle, and buffer zones. The airspace in the U.S. is very complex, so it will take some time. There are efforts underway by the FAA to minimize cancelations and delays.”

The altimeter issue does not impact indoor C-band, however.

“If you wanted to deploy C-band indoors in the terminal using a small cell, that, to my understanding, is still allowed,” he said.

Moreover, Leigh said he doubts the airplane safety controversy will tangibly impact the business customers that the channel serves.

“I think for most businesses and enterprises, they’re not far enough along in the 5G adoption curve for this to have a significant impact in the short-and even mid-term,” he said. “They may have their employees or some of their staff on 5G phones, but what mission-critical things are they doing?”

On the other hand, White House press secretary Jen Psaki and other government officials warned that an influx of delayed and cancelled flights could set the supply chain back even further.

Different Flavors

Although other countries have widely used mid-band spectrum to the point where Leigh calls it the “lingua franca” of 5G, America has lagged behind. A recent FCC commission handed out C-band, for which Verizon doled out $52.9 billion. Leigh said most of the C-band Verizon. purchased was set to be available by December 2021, as would some of AT&T’s new C-band. T-Mobile, on the other hand, bought C-band that will go live in 2023.

T-Mobile has used mid-band spectrum of 2.5 GHz, which falls outside the category of C-band (3.7 to 3.98 GHz). As a result, the composition of T-Mobile’s 5G network creates speeds that are relatively higher than that of 4G LTE but significantly lower than that of mmWave. However, studies have demonstrated that mmWave struggles to penetrate buildings, despite its headline-generating speed. AT&T also uses low-band spectrum for 5G that offers good coverage, but Leigh said low-band doesn’t do much to improve on 4G’s speed.

Leigh said C-band provides the “secret sauce” that operators have been missing in their 5G services. It brings an improvement in performance as well as strong coverage. For businesses customers, C-band 5G can make all the difference.

Certain businesses, such as a factory, can benefit from mmWave, but those companies are far and few in between, Leigh said.

“If you need something that requires greater mobility – if you’re a utility company, a repair business, a shipping company – and you have things that go off-site, if you’re trying to tap into 5G in a mobile setting, millimeter wave is essentially useless right now. Depending on the need and what you’re using it for, you could probably leverage the low-band. But if you’re not certain or you’re building to greater autonomy and you do need that latency, C-band’s what’s going to bring that,” he said.

New Option

Consider that Verizon Fios’ fiber plans start at 200 Mbps and then upgrade to 400 before moving up to a gigabit. Leigh said C-band can compete with the two lower tiers.

“I now have a wireless service I can offer that will be on par with some versions of wired broadband,” he said.

Partners agreed.


Disruptive Innovations’ David Wright

David Wright runs the New York-based consultancy Disruptive Innovations. He said 5G will positively impact internet availability, serviceability, bandwidth and quality.

“If you’re doing a 400-500 location rollout for a multilocation organization (with locations not just in major football cities), there’s typically anywhere from 15-20% fallout where adequate broadband access is available. In some instances, fiber may be available from the LEC, so companies that need cost-effective solutions are beholden to much costlier fiber-DIA circuits. Or in many instances, they end up needing to go with subpar Ethernet-over-copper circuits at a premium (upward of $800-$1,000 for 20 Mbps),” Wright said.

Wright also said customers often need a …

… wireless connectivity option for their SD-WAN, which 4G, fixed wireless and satellite might not solve. That’s where 5G might come in.

“It can be used as a primary in all these sites that never had any options, and a backup or active-active solution that will actually be able to keep a business running (and not just provide the bare minimum for business-critical apps). Until Starlink is more widely available to businesses, 5G (so long as the bandwidth and availability are as good they’re saying it’s going to be) will change the game for many multilocation businesses (and all businesses for that matter),” Wright told Channel Futures.

Robert DeVita, CEO of Mejeticks, said we can’t currently quantify how 5G is impacting business customers.


Mejeticks’ Robert Devita

“If the goal of 5G is faster internet access, I don’t think this is going to make a major impact. 5G is being deployed in major metros where suitable internet access already exists. The data plans available now are not cost-effective for enterprises to start using heavily due to the overage charges. It can quickly become more expensive than traditional broadband access. The real adoption for 5G will come in how advanced services are delivered utilizing the increased bandwidth. We have not seen those applications come to the market yet.”

The Channel and Wireless

How many traditional telecom agents sell wireless plans? Peter Radizeski, president of Rad-Info, said the number is somewhere around 200.


Rad-Info’s Peter Radizeski

“At one time, many agents sold cellular, but it was a one-time commission with too many chargebacks from the [cellular companies. It just didn’t make sense. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have partner programs to sell cellular phones, plans, data cards and SIMs, but I think most partners who sell 4G backup are offering it through a reseller who is bundling it with [customer premises equipment] like SD-WAN boxes,” he said.

Radizeski pointed to fixed wireless access as a monetizable opportunity for partners.

“Fast turn up means fast commissions,” he said.

DeVita said the wireless providers are not incentivizing the channel toward widespread adoption of mobility sales.

“The commissions on mobility are terrible, including 5G. In order for the channel community to widely adopt 5G as an access methodology, the distributors are going to have to do a much better job negotiating better commissions from the suppliers,” he said.

Digital Divide

Greg Jones, chief technology officer of  managed IoT connectivity provider Kajeet, said C-band will go a long way in helping to bridge the digital divide for those who lack broadband coverage.


Kajeet’s Greg Jones

“Indirectly, hundreds of billions of government dollars are at stake in reaching these populations to level the playing field in areas such as education (exacerbated by the need for virtual classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic) and reducing the government burden of caring for the most costly, sickest population who are often homebound with little access to affordable health care,” Jones said. “The devices and applications built on 5G C-band open up a true opportunity to close these gaps, especially with the capabilities of ultra-fast reliable video capabilities.

Want to contact the author directly about this story? Have ideas for a follow-up article? Email James Anderson or connect with him on LinkedIn.


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About the Author(s)

James Anderson

Senior News Editor, Channel Futures

James Anderson is a news editor for Channel Futures. He interned with Informa while working toward his degree in journalism from Arizona State University, then joined the company after graduating. He writes about SD-WAN, telecom and cablecos, technology services distributors and carriers. He has served as a moderator for multiple panels at Channel Partners events.

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