FAA, wireless companies agree to allow more 5G towers near airports

Alan Levin and Todd Shields

Federal aviation regulators have concluded that new 5G wireless broadcasts can be conducted closer to airports than previously thought without interfering with sensitive aircraft equipment.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday issued a statement saying that wireless companies can add additional cell towers nearer to airports without compromising safety.

The FAA has imposed broad flight restrictions as a result of new 5G service by AT&T and Verizon that began in 46 regions on Jan. 19. The Friday announcement is the latest sign that impacts from the service on aviation have been limited.

"Through continued technical collaboration, the FAA, Verizon, and AT&T have agreed on steps that will enable more aircraft to safely use key airports while also enabling more towers to deploy 5G service," the FAA said in a statement.

The 5G service approved by the Federal Communications Commission is on frequencies adjacent to those used by devices known as radar altimeters on thousands of airliners, helicopters and privately owned aircraft. After months of tension over the issue, the FAA and wireless and aviation industry groups have been poring over data in an attempt to mitigate the impacts.

"This is a positive development that highlights the considerable progress the wireless industry, aviation industry, FAA and FCC are making to ensure robust 5G service and safe flights," Nick Ludlum, a spokesman for CTIA, a trade group that represents wireless providers including AT&T and Verizon, said in an email.

The FAA has so far concluded about 90% of the U.S. commercial aircraft fleet is at least partially shielded from 5G interference and can operate into most airports. The agency has said on its website that it expects to revise those findings as soon as the end of January as the wireless companies add new cell towers.

While some regional jet flights have been canceled as a result of the restrictions, impacts overall have been minimal.