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AT&T, Verizon delay 5G debut near some airports following warning of "catastrophic disruption" to travel

Verizon and AT&T are delaying the launch of their 5G technology near some airports just a day before their planned rollouts, the carriers confirmed to CBS News on Tuesday. The delays come after chief executives of America's largest airlines warned of "catastrophic disruption" to travel and shipping operations should the technology not be limited around U.S. airports. 

"At our sole discretion 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," an AT&T spokesperson said in a statement.

Verizon said its technology, which is intended to increase speed, reliability and power for more than 90 million Americans, will launch Wednesday as planned, but with the temporary limit around airports. 

It comes after Verizon and AT&T delayed the launch of their new C-Band 5G service due to warnings from airlines and aircraft manufacturers that it may disrupt altitude measurement devices used by planes. 

President Biden thanked the companies for the temporary delay, saying it "protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans."

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr on Tuesday night criticized the move, calling it a "setback for U.S. leadership in 5G."

"Indeed, the negative consequences that flow from this type of dysfunctional process are not limited to the facts of this case," he wrote in a statement. "It is going to make it even harder for the U.S. to reach and stick with sound spectrum decisions going forward. This is a bad deal."

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also issued a statement, writing that "we appreciate the wireless companies working with us to protect the flying public and the country's supply chain." 

Despite the delayed rollout at some airports, Delta Airlines said Tuesday evening that it is preparing for cancelations at dozens of airports across the U.S. amid the 5G rollout. It called the carriers' decision to limit the rollout a "positive development toward preventing widespread disruptions to flight operations" but said "some flight restrictions may remain."

The airline added that it will "issue fare-difference waivers in advance of cancellations" and automatically rebook affected customers.

A Monday letter sent to Buttigieg and other U.S. government officials warned of "economic calamity" and said "the nation's commerce will grind to a halt" should the 5G launch be implemented near airports. 

"We are writing with urgency to request that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate two miles of airport runways as defined by the FAA on January 19, 2022," airline CEOs said in the letter. 

AT&T said it is 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." The Verizon statement echoed that statement, noting that the technology is "safe and fully operational" in dozens of other countries. 

It said the aviation industry and the FAA "have not utilized the two years they've had to responsibly plan for this deployment."

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