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Michael O’Rielly: Substantive Objections to a Government 5G Wholesale Network

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Over the last few months, various ideas have been floated about the offering of 5G wireless services via a government-sponsored network. This entire effort seems convoluted and borders on the preposterous. Just the notion of the U.S. moving away from the highly-successful, private-sector led approach that is responsible for our country’s premier position globally would be a serious misstep. In essence, it would throw a monkey wrench into one of the greatest success stories in the history of technology. At the same time, it has been nearly impossible to nail down with any granularity what exactly is being contemplated by this new “network.” To call this effort a trial balloon is insulting to balloons, as all the ideas mentioned have far less consistency than balloons, and more closely resemble a child’s bubbles. Based on what we do know, however, the entire effort is jam-packed with insurmountable problems.

Accordingly, I’ve attempted to expose a few of the issues that someone trying to create a government-sponsored 5G network would face – no matter how it was structured – and explain why it doesn’t make logical sense. Perhaps all the rhetoric and lobbying in favor of this scheme will end once people examine some straight facts and salient arguments.

No Available Spectrum Bands

In an ever-increasingly wireless world, each megahertz is being strenuously fought over. Any effort to repurpose a commercial band to new and different uses, such as this proposed network, will not occur without a huge fight (consider, e.g., C-Band discussions). Moreover, the “easy” bands to convert for advanced wireless services have already been allocated. With that avenue essentially closed, the concept being bandied about is that this new network would be “given” spectrum from the Department of Defense’s (DoD) holdings. The most likely DoD frequencies that could be used for this purpose would be in the 3 GHz band, but DoD has already thrown up multiple roadblocks to any commercial activity in these bands as a threat to its mission. I know this well, as I’ve been advocating for a complete reallocation of the 3.45 to 3.55 GHz and portions of the 3.1 to 3.45 GHz bands for commercial use. Without spectrum, there is zero chance that such a network could even function, much less succeed. Not to mention, true 5G will require low-, mid- and high-band spectrum, so it is unlikely that this nationwide network would ever be able to realize the capacity, speeds, and latency of 5G.

Even if there were some magical band that DoD would make available, federal government agency spectrum cannot be used to offer commercial services. Therefore, the minute a commercial entity tried to use the government-sponsored wholesale network to offer services, the network and any users – not to mention the DoD – would be in violation of the law and numerous FCC rules. Good luck trying to get a private company to commit to use this wholesale network when it would be immediately subject to cease and desist orders and potential penalties from the Commission, especially since the Chairman and all Commissioners have loudly objected to this wholesale network concept from the outset. And, that is even if we get to this point, because multiple lawsuits would be filed that would bring these plans to a halt immediately. Additionally, there seems to be a very low likelihood that Congress will change the underlying laws and regulations, as relevant legislative efforts in play (e.g., bills by Senators Cruz and Cornyn) seem to be taking the discussion in the direct opposite direction.

Can’t Compel Usage

Absent interpreting current law or regulations in an incomprehensible way, there is no way to require any provider to use a wholesale wireless network. Without a mandate, it means that any use will have to be completely voluntary. Given nationwide providers’ alternative plans to roll-out 5G services and their objections to this network, they clearly have zero interest in using it. And, these are the reactions before we even have clear guidance on how access to this wholesale network would be determined. Without the bigger providers’ participation, use and financial support for this new system would be left to regional providers, smaller entities, and/or new entrants. It is possible that some of these might be willing to use such a network, but their traffic load is likely to be incredibly low and wouldn’t make the overall economics work. Moreover, their usage patterns would likely peak in specific locations and not others. Yet a massive network infrastructure would have to be constructed for multiple reasons, including security (see below), notwithstanding the overall demands for its use. And, if there are new entrants who can use the capacity of and support such a network, they are also free to acquire spectrum like any other commercial entity, instead of getting a government handout.

No Tower Agreements/Relationships

Almost all wireless towers and antenna locations are owned or leased by companies unaffiliated with the large wireless providers. However, the existing contractual relationships and uncertainty surrounding the viability of this random wholesale network model means that it is unlikely that the current wireless infrastructure would be available for this purpose. To the extent collocation is not an option, that leaves constructing new towers and contracting for new antenna sites. This would make such a network build – starting from the ground up – astronomically expensive. In fact, other current spectrum holders have admittedly decided not to take this approach. It would also take a very long time, if ever, to execute these agreements and finish construction, which would increase the likelihood that any nationwide network and, more importantly the dedicated spectrum, would be underutilized if this plan was ever to be put in motion. This endeavor is not unlike plans of the recently bankrupt Alliance of American Football and its backers’ efforts to build a new professional football league from the ground up; jumping to the punchline, the vision lasted all of six weeks.

Won’t Ensure Security

One of the main reasons given for the creation of a government-sponsored wholesale network is that it is the only mechanism to secure 5G communications from interceptors and those with nefarious intentions. This line of thinking is flawed for at least two reasons. First, it assumes that private sector wireless providers don’t care about security or can’t ensure sufficient security, which just isn’t accurate. These companies have been and continue to work hard within the standard-setting bodies to incorporate security within the various 5G standard iterations. That means the protocols adopted have and will promote extensive security efforts. More importantly, these same providers know quite well that users expect security when using their networks. Thus, they have every incentive and are pursuing the appropriate steps to ensure robust, secure communications, especially in a 5G universe.

Second and equally flawed is the idea that any network, especially this wholesale one, can be completely secure. To guarantee security of the overall system, no data can be handed off to another carrier or carried by the public Internet. In other words, this network must carry all its traffic from end to end, especially in a 5G universe where computing will be diffuse and not centralized, generating unlimited exposure points. Siting wireless facilities nationwide is expensive enough but building separate fiber and backhaul systems from scratch is practically undoable. Even if this were possible, which it is not, there would be intense interest in breaking into and exploiting its communications. It effectively would be an engraved invitation for any rogue entity seeking to undermine the U.S. government’s sponsorship of the network. Also, arguing that this network couldn’t be broken into ignores the reality of past breaches of high priority U.S. government networks (e.g., DoD, CIA).

Won’t Stop China’s Global Expansion

For those worried about the communist Chinese government’s influence and resulting harmful effects, it is nearly impossible to see how hamstringing the U.S. market with a government-sponsored network will convince other countries to take similar action. Shooting oneself in the foot rarely leads others to do the same. In fact, there is no evidence showing how and no plausible argument as to why taking such a drastic step would sever other nations’ installation of Chinese equipment in their networks or curtail Chinese wireless providers from gobbling market share as they move from country to country. More problematic, there is a likelihood that the U.S.’s pursuit of such a curious path — with its added costs, extensive buildout timelines, and suspect security improvements — would drive other nations to increase their reliance on what has typically been cheaper-priced Chinese communications equipment, placing Chinese manufacturers and providers in a stronger position than those in the U.S. and other market-based countries. And, it is fairly conceivable that the Chinese government would counter our action with even more subsidies. Instead of curtailing China’s 5G global position, it may act as a further catalyst.

Government Undermining Private Sector Wireless Market

The establishment of such a wholesale 5G network would unfairly and inappropriately provide a U.S. government imprimatur over those of the private sector. This is not too dissimilar to the debate decades ago over whether there should be a government-sponsored national U.S. bank. While I have little doubt that our nation’s existing wireless providers could compete and succeed against this new network model, just the mere threat of giving this “idea” serious consideration might have negative repercussions. For instance, it might improperly increase providers’ risk for customer loss, especially government agency traffic; potentially initiate review of their borrowing costs; and generate negative public perception of their network security. Creating unnecessary doubt and market uncertainty for the private sector is a serious unintended consequence of continuing to even have the debate over this network.

On a larger scale, such a government stamp-of-approval combined with free DoD spectrum would send a signal that we are not fully committed to American capitalism. At this precarious moment in time and with global economic uprisings on the rise, this slice of socialism sends exactly the wrong signal to the rest of the world.

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Given all the issues identified, a major question remains: why in the world would we gamble our nation’s strong wireless position for a less than half-baked, flawed idea? Certainly, it makes little sense to give it any credence or pursue it in any capacity — at least until definitive solutions to the issues above and potentially others are presented. I won’t hold my breath that any attempt will be made to provide any specifics or to answer the unanswerable.

Michael O’Rielly has been a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission since October 2013.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@broadbandcensus.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Breakfast Media LLC. This article was originally published on FCC.gov.

Expert Opinion

Adrianne Furniss: Lifeline Needs A Lifeline

The FCC should hit the pause button on a current plan to zero out support for voice-only services.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Adrianne Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society

In less than three months, nearly 800,000 low-income people who receive telephone subsidies through the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program will be negatively impacted by changes scheduled to go into effect at the Federal Communications Commission on December 1. That is one of the most troubling — and pressing — conclusions of an independent evaluation of the FCC’s Lifeline program conducted by Grant Thornton. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the FCC must act now to ensure people can retain essential communications services.

As of June 20, 2021, approximately 6.9 million subscribers were enrolled in the Lifeline program; most (approximately 94 percent) are enrolled in supported wireless plans. Voice service remains a desired service for both Lifeline subscribers and the general American consumer. Only 1 percent of surveyed American adults live in a home with neither fixed nor mobile voice service, and mobile-only voice subscribers comprise more than 60 percent of U.S. households.

In 2016, the FCC adopted a comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program. For the first time, the FCC included broadband as a supported service in the program. Lifeline program rules allowed support for stand-alone mobile (think cell phone) or fixed broadband Internet access service (think home broadband service delivered over a wire), as well as bundles including fixed or mobile voice and broadband. The 2016 decision also set in motion a plan to zero-out support for voice-only services.

In its February 2021 report, Thornton found that the phase-down and ultimate phase-out of voice services by December 1, 2021 may negatively impact 797,454 Lifeline consumers (that’s over 10 percent of all Lifeline enrollees) who use voice-only services for fundamental needs. So that’s nearly 800,000 households that could face being disconnected from phone service this winter.

The FCC needs to change course and help more Americans keep connected to communications services that are essential to navigate the ongoing public health and economic crisis.

And it needs to act before December 1.

Most importantly, the FCC should act swiftly and hit the pause button on the 2016 plan to zero-out support for voice-only services. During the pandemic, the stakes are just too high for anyone to be disconnected from essential communications networks.

Then the FCC should launch a new effort to reform and further modernize the Lifeline program, informed by what we’ve witnessed during COVID, and the findings in Thornton’s and the FCC’s own recent review of the Lifeline program.

First, Lifeline needs to have foundational governance documents—such as strategic plans, performance objectives, and an integrated communications plan—to assist in the longitudinal success and guidance of the program.

Second, the FCC has to consider raising Lifeline’s monthly subsidy, $9.25, so it can make more meaningful services affordable for low-income families. Home-broadband prices (both for fixed and wireless service) remain disproportionately high when compared to the Lifeline program subsidy. The FCC should evaluate minimum service standards in relation to the average cost of wireless, wireline, and broadband data plans and determine if the subsidy will cover all, or even the majority of costs to provide Lifeline services.

Third, the FCC must adopt changes in the program so it better benefits the people it was created to connect.

  • The FCC should seek to understand the composition of Lifeline households and what services various members need (i.e., school-aged children, telecommuters, etc.). The minimum services supported by Lifeline should address the needs of the entire household.
  • Just 25 percent of the people eligible to participate in the Lifeline program actually enroll. The FCC must understand why and should consider ways to improve awareness of the Lifeline program. One idea is to partner with other federal benefit programs, and the state agencies that administer those programs, to not only increase outreach about Lifeline, but ideally to integrate Lifeline’s application processes into those program applications.
  • The FCC should adopt program rules that incorporate Lifeline consumer feedback to ensure the program works for the most vulnerable people in society.

Fourth, changes in the Lifeline program should encourage all telecommunications and broadband service providers to compete to serve low-income households in their service areas.

Finally, the FCC should also consider revising its measure of affordability of broadband for low-income consumers. Currently, the FCC considers “affordable service” as 2 percent of disposable income of those below 135 percent of the federal poverty level. Instead, the FCC should consider affordability in the context of a subscriber’s purchasing power in a geographic location and balanced with availability of services and choice of providers. The FCC should evaluate the pricing packages of voice and broadband services offered by Lifeline carriers and provide assurance that packages offered are in the reasonable standard of affordability for low-income consumers. And the FCC should institute a structured process to regularly review the Lifeline program’s pricing packages and incorporate measures of both the subsidy rate and service standards for similar programs (like the Emergency Broadband Benefit), income statistics of current consumers, and the percentage of Lifeline subscribers who pay out of pocket for services.

The commitment to connecting people with low incomes to essential communications services is not new. But the past 18 months have offered stark reminders of the importance of universal service. We need the FCC to act now to keep everyone connected. And we need the FCC to update the Lifeline program so everyone can rely on a basic level of connectivity no matter how much income they have.

Adrianne Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. She manages the institute’s staff and relationships with Benton experts, partners, and supporters in service to Benton’s mission and in consultation with Benton’s Trustees and Board of Directors. Previously, she held management positions at both non-profit and for-profit content creation companies, focused on program development, marketing, and distribution. This piece was originally published in the Benton Institute’s Digital Beat, and is reprinted with permission. © Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2021. Redistribution of this publication – both internally and externally – is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Expert Opinion

Sen. Michael Bennet: Broadband Infrastructure Legislation Follows Colorado Model

Senate-passed legislation for broadband investment inspired by Colorado’s experience, says senator.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator from Colorado

Washington may soon make the biggest broadband investment in U.S. history, and the first draft was written in Colorado.

Last month, the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes a historic $65 billion for broadband. This section draws directly from the BRIDGE Act, the bill I wrote with Coloradans to reflect our state’s struggles and successes against the digital divide.

Long before the pandemic, broadband was a consistent source of frustration for people across our state. Parents on the Front Range, farmers on the Eastern Plains, and nurses on the Western Slope all told me the same thing: broadband was too slow or expensive to be of any practical use.

Too often, Washington’s answer was to shower the biggest telecom companies with billions in subsidies to build networks, usually in rural areas, that were outdated almost as soon as they were finished. At the same time, Washington had no good answer for working families, many in cities, who couldn’t afford existing broadband options.

As usual, Colorado didn’t wait on Washington to act. Cities created their own municipal networks, like Longmont’s NextLight, which PC Magazine named one of the fastest broadband providers in America. Electric coops like the Delta-Montrose and Yampa Valley Electric Associations deployed fiber-optic networks in rural communities at world-class speeds and prices. Through it all, the Colorado government demonstrated that it could get money out the door for broadband faster and more effectively than Washington.

With these lessons in mind, I wrote the BRIDGE Act with Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman from Ohio and Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King from Maine. Our bill became the model for the broadband provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is now on the cusp of becoming law.

Based on the BRIDGE Act, the infrastructure bill gives the lion’s share of the broadband funding to states, not Washington. This is a sea change in policy, because it puts states and local leaders — not federal bureaucrats — in the driver’s seat. After all, they have the best understanding of needs on the ground and the greatest incentive to spend limited funds wisely.

Second, the bill more than quadruples the minimum speeds for new broadband networks, while prioritizing even faster networks. For a typical family, this means kids could download homework (or stream Netflix) even as parents work remotely — all without their connection slowing to a crawl.

Third, the bill includes $2 billion for broadband on tribal lands, including the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute here in Colorado. According to the FCC, one in three homes on tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband — a significantly higher rate than the rest of the country. Closing this gap is an economic and moral imperative.

Finally, the infrastructure bill prioritizes affordability by requiring new broadband networks to provide at least one low-cost option. Inexplicably, Washington has never insisted on this before. And it can’t come soon enough.

All of these ideas came directly from the BRIDGE Act and what I’ve learned from Colorado. Now we have to pass them into law.

If we do, it would represent the biggest broadband investment in our history, but also one of the most transformative investments in our future. It will mean every worker in our mountain communities can connect remotely for their jobs. It will mean every farmer and rancher can deploy the latest technologies for precision agriculture. It will mean every family can connect with their doctors online, instead of traveling hours to the local clinic. And it will mean no student will be left without broadband, which today is no different than leaving them without textbooks.

We are on the verge of connecting every American to affordable, high-speed broadband. And if we succeed, we can take satisfaction in knowing that Colorado led the way.

Michael Bennet is U.S. Senator from Colorado. This piece was originally published in the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel, and is reprinted with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Shrihari Pandit: States Can Enable Broadband Infrastructure Through Open Access Conduits

By creating open infrastructure systems, states can reduce the barriers to entry and foster increased broadband competition.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Shrihari Pandit, CEO of Stealth Communications

Now that the infrastructure bill has passed the Senate, we see key provisions included for broadband in America. In fact, a whopping $65B will go toward broadband funding — provided it passes the House this month. But, will throwing more money at broadband help to solve key issues like closing the digital divide and making broadband access more affordable for millions?

The short answer is: not necessarily. For years the federal government has provided subsidies to incumbent ISPs hoping they will solve key issues with broadband in America and still access to the internet continues to be a challenge. What we need is a radical broadband overhaul where we can level the playing field for smaller ISPs to compete in the marketplace and fill the gaps incumbent ISPs have neglected for years.

As the broadband infrastructure funding provisions emerge, it appears that states will have a major role in determining how to allocate these resources. And, they must make careful considerations to help connect the unconnected and meet the needs of their residents. As access to a robust digital communications network is so critical now – in an ongoing pandemic era – states also have to look ahead and ensure they are creating sustainable and long-term infrastructure in the public interest.

Creating open-access conduit systems

State governments should focus on enabling key infrastructure, namely conduits, rights of way and utility poles – as these are the biggest hurdles for ISPs looking to extend fiber. Sometimes referred to among pros as “layer zero”, the telecom market can be transformed with open-access conduit systems running across the country and extended locally. A conduit highway would be akin to the interstate in which fiber could be easily run between cities and towns across multiple states.

An open-access conduit system can help create a more approachable marketplace for new ISPs to enter and help to fill coverage gaps left un-served by incumbent ISPs. Easier and cheaper access to neutral utility poles would help to reduce the cost of broadband access and allow providers to easily pull their fiber optic infrastructure to homes, businesses, and wireless towers, especially vital for longer-distances in rural areas. In NYC, for example, there is a robust competitive marketplace enabled by a shared conduit system managed by Empire City Subway.

Although currently limited to boroughs of Manhattan and The Bronx, this carrier-neutral system allows multiple ISPs to run cables up and down streets with ease and provides a pathway to extend fiber access to additional NYC neighborhoods. Across the country, open-access models are proliferating, including Ammon, Idaho, as summarized in a recent report by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Leveling the ISP marketplace

By creating open infrastructure systems, more providers can enter the marketplace and create increased competition as the barriers to entry are reduced. Previously, incumbent ISPs have received billions of dollars to close the digital divide, – the divide, as well as their market power, persist.

By creating infrastructure that brings additional private ISPs into the marketplace, states can give residents and businesses  more choices to meet their internet needs which is in the best interest of everyone. More competition also means that incumbent ISPs need to step up their game and offer the services they boast about – or they risk losing market share to private competition. In other words, a long-term, sustainable solution.

Embracing the public infrastructure/private service model

When considering a new infrastructure project, oftentimes, the burden of proof lies with the state. However, with the public infrastructure/private service model, the risk is shared between the state and the ISP. This model enables cities and counties to finance and maintain infrastructure while also managing rights-of-way. And, private or incumbent ISPs can ensure broadband access including cable, fiber optic, or wireless. This is a scalable option for communities that are unaware of how to operate communications networks but want to own and control core communications assets.

States have a major undertaking ahead as they consider how to utilize their infrastructure funding to boost public works projects. As broadband infrastructure development has been so crucial in the last year, creating an improved marketplace for ISPs through open-access infrastructure should be their priority in their long-term public interest.  And with a public infrastructure/private service model, the risk will be shared with providers.

Shrihari Pandit is CEO and co-founder of the New York City-area fiber provider Stealth Communications. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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