WASHINGTON, March 16, 2018 – Questions about how the federal government will be involved in rolling out the next-generation infrastructure for wireless, known as 5G (for 5th generation) remained after a Wednesday infrastructure hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee.
“With the rise of the internet and cell phones, we face the new challenge of building infrastructure to facilitate access to these technologies for everyone,” said Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-South Dakota. “The principle is the same today as it was then: our nation must stay interconnected.”
Thune touted the “ambitious” plan unveiled by the Trump administration last month as evidence of a Republican commitment to upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges, and broadband networks, but his Democratic counterpart, Ranking Member Bill Nelson, D-Florida, panned the White House’s plans to leave the lion’s share of the bill to states and public-private partnerships, noting the country can neither “cut our way to prosperity” nor “toll our way out” of a lack of commitment from the federal government.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on innovative projects
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross used his opening statement to discuss the White House’s Transformative Projects Program, under which a committee chaired by the Commerce Secretary would hand out federal dollars for “bold and innovative projects…that have the potential to dramatically improve America’s infrastructure.”
“These are the types of projects that may not attract private sector investment without federal incentives, because of their unique characteristics, but they could have a substantial positive impact on states, cities, and localities,” Ross said, citing the projects “significant bang for the buck.”
Similarly, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue used his opening statement to highlight the proposed Rural Infrastructure Program, which would distribute federal funds as block grants to be administered by rural governors.
Yet some Senators were skeptical of whether the Trump programs would be an improvement over attempts by the previous administration to increase rural broadband penetration.
The priorities of the Rural Utilities Service in the past
Citing several Governmental Accountability Office reports which criticized the effectiveness of the Rural Utilities Service under the Obama administration, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, asked Perdue what his department is doing “to make sure that the loans and the grants that you make will be used to bring broadband to unserved areas,” rather than overbuild areas with sufficient connectivity.
Moran called the overbuilding of already-served areas while unserved areas were ignored “one of the frustrations of the past.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt, senator, that your allegations are accurate in that regard,” said Perdue, before blaming the problem on “great grant writers” who were dipping into the same pot multiple times.
The key importance of making use of broadband mapping data
But Perdue noted that misallocation of broadband grant funds isn’t unique to the USDA, suggesting the “entire federal government” had failed to make sure broadband funds were deployed “in a strategic way.”
“You’ve got to start with good facts, you’ve got to start with accurate data,” he said, noting that both he and some Senators continue to have concerns over the Federal Communications Commission’s self-reported broadband maps.
“We’re trying again to work interagency-wise with Commerce, with the FCC, to make sure we’ve got the facts on the ground on strategically, how we need to deploy,” said Perdue.
“There’s a lot of money going out for broadband currently – how do we deploy that in the most needed areas rather than giving loans and grants to people who’ve overbilled? Our interest is in rural America - a ubiquitous system – how do we get there sooner rather than later?”
Perdue admitted that universal broadband will “not be an instantaneous thing,” but reiterated that successful universal deployment will require good facts and good data before stressing that his department takes the matter very seriously and wants to do better than past administrations have done.
Questioning whether the Trump administration is putting a rural focus on broadband
Despite the Trump administration’s stated focus on rural areas, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, remained unimpressed by the White House’s plan. He noted that the lack of federal funding could be a disaster for rural states unless the Trump administration expects them to sell off public lands to pay for new roads since, according to Tester, toll roads – another Trump administration favorite – “just won’t work.”
“I don’t understand how this plan is well thought out at all to get things build,” Tester said.
Will the Trump administration nationalize the nation’s 5G wireless network?
Another Senator with harsh words for the administration was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who pressed Ross about plans by the Trump administration to nationalize the forthcoming 5G wireless network in the name of national security.
Earlier this year a leaked document alleged that the White House was considering either having the government build and operate the 5G network itself but resell capacity to commercial telecommunications providers.
When Cruz asked Ross if there was any truth to the proposal, Ross admitted he is “aware” of it, but said no final decision had been made.
“We regard 5G as quite essential both to the commercial interests and to the national security interests of the country,” Ross said. “Everybody is focused on the utter importance of 5G and of the U.S. being a leader in it.”
While Ross stressed that the administration has no desire to see the U.S. vacate a leadership position in 5G, Cruz warned that it would be a “grave mistake” to nationalize the network, and that such a proposal would face “significant resistance” from both chambers of Congress.
(Photo of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, right, speaking at an interagency forum in Washington on January 17, 2018, by the USDA.)