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On Educational Broadband, Critics Say FCC’s ‘Unfathomable’ Proposal Will Widen Digital Divide

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WASHINGTON, June 24, 2019 — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed order to permit auction of portions of the 2.5 Gigahertz (GHz) spectrum band has drawn criticism from many outside the agency, including several members of Congress and even the U.S. Department of Education in the Trump administration.

The draft order would eliminate the educational use requirements for Educational Broadband Services spectrum. It does not reserve a window for educational institutions to acquire licenses.

“The Department strongly encourages the Commission to maintain and modernize the current educational priority of the EBS spectrum by keeping the current eligibility requirements for EBS licenses, modernizing the educational use requirement, and issuing new EBS licenses using local priority filing windows,” said Jim Blew, assistant secretary from the U.S. Department of Education. “These measures will ensure that this valuable public resource can be leveraged by local communities to implement solutions to the ‘homework gap,’ close the digital divide in rural areas, and provide access to affordable broadband.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, urged the FCC to “prioritize accredited educational institutions,” calling EBS licensing “one of the few tools the Commission has to close the homework gap.” He expressed concern that the order would “effectively remove educational entities” from the 2.5 GHz band “at a time when broadband for education is more important than ever.”

Advocates were also deeply critical of FCC move

“Eliminating the educational priority for EBS would be disastrous for online learning, 5G deployment, and rural consumers,” said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition. “The best way to encourage 5G in rural markets is to award licenses to educational institutions that live and work in their communities and whose mission is to serve the needs of students.”

Windhausen pointed out successful examples of EBS broadband deployment from northern Michigan to rural Virginia to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, arguing that the FCC’s order essentially overturns “over 50 years of educational precedent based on exaggerated claims by the commercial carriers.”

Commercial carriers would likely only deploy 5G services in 30 percent of unserved markets whereas educational institutions would serve almost all of them, according to a recent study commissioned by SHLB.

The study concluded that licensing EBS spectrum to schools and tribal nations would reduce the rural homework gap by nearly 30 percent. By contrast, auctioning off the spectrum is expected to reduce the gap by just over 1 percent.

“The draft order contends that auctioning EBS spectrum licensing will encourage private providers to deliver 5G service to unconnected, underserved students living in the most sparsely populated communities. This makes no economic sense,” said Consortium for School Networking CEO Keith Kruger. “If U.S. market forces were sufficient, the connectivity problem would not be so prevalent throughout rural and other remote areas nationwide.”

Kruger said that he was “deeply disappointed” by Pai’s plan, warning that it would be “detrimental” to rural and low-income students.

Tribal window continues, but no allowance for educational institutions

Although the order reserves a priority licensing window for tribal entities, no such allowance has been made for educational institutions. Critics of the order have raised concerns about the impact on rural education and the digital divide.

Conducting an auction instead of issuing licenses via priority windows will not actually expedite 5G deployment because the licensing process will still take years, said Mark Colwell, director of telecommunications strategy at Voqal.

Colwell called the order “unfathomable” and a “radical policy shift that denies schools an opportunity to access spectrum necessary to deploy broadband.”

“The Chairman’s proposal cites dated uses of EBS licenses and the FCC’s two-decade failure to grant new licenses as the basis for handing the spectrum to private providers that have repeatedly failed to address rural America’s homework gap,” said Candice Dodson, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

The 625 megahertz of spectrum already held by national providers includes 76.5 megahertz of the 2.5 GHz band. Many critics argue that this proves commercial carriers are not actually utilizing this spectrum to close the digital divide.

“There is no sound reason to deprive state education agencies and school districts at least one opportunity to use new EBS licenses to promote broadband innovation, including through public-private partnerships,” Dodson concluded.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association put out a statement partially supporting Pai’s agenda, saying that the changes to EBS will “make more efficient and effective use” of the valuable 2.5 GHz band.

Pai’s plan will allow EBS licensees to transfer their licenses to commercial entities and eliminate educational use requirements for the 2.5 GHz spectrum band.

“The flexibility afforded to EBS licensees represents an important breakthrough for this largely fallow band, though we wish the FCC had proposed an auction design better suited to the needs of small providers,” said WISPA President Claude Aiken.

The 2.5 GHz band will be auctioned in a large block of 100 MHz and a small block of 16.5 MHz without bidding credits. WISPA fears that this will not give small providers a legitimate opportunity to acquire spectrum.

(Photo of Ajit Pai by Gage Skidmore, used with permission.)

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5G Will Help Enhance Environment Protection and Sustainability, Conference Hears

The technology has already been used by companies to monitor and make more efficient systems to reduce emissions.

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Photo of Bourhan Yassin, CEO of Rainforest Connection

WASHINGTON, June 28, 2022 – Because of its facilitation of real-time monitoring and more efficient use of systems, 5G technology will help tackle climate change and beef up environmental sustainability, an Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event heard Tuesday.

5G technology’s ubiquitous connectivity and lower latency enables climate technology that decarbonizes manufacturing plants, enables rainforest monitoring, and limits greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

5G also enables real-time traffic control and monitoring that can help minimize carbon footprint, said John Hunter from T-Mobile, which has a large 5G network thanks in part to its merger with Sprint.

Finnish 5G equipment supplier Nokia has invested in smart manufacturing relying on the speed of 5G in its plants, which it said has resulted in a 10 to 20 percent carbon dioxide reduction and a 30 percent productivity improvement with 50 percent reduction in product defects.

Non-profit tech startup Rainforest Connection has used 5G technology to implant sensitive microphones into endangered rainforests in over 22 countries around the world. These microphones pick up on sounds in the forest and transmit them in real time to personnel on the ground.

These highly sensitive machines are camouflaged in trees and can pick up sounds of gunfire from poaching and chainsaws from illegal logging activity from miles away. The technology has proven to be significant in rainforest conservation and will enable researchers and scientists to find innovative solutions to help endangered species as they study the audio.

“By being able to integrate technologies such as 5G, we can accelerate that process… to achieve the mission [of mitigating climate change effects] sooner than we expected,” said Rainforest Connection CEO Bourhan Yassin.

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Tech-Backed Infrastructure Firm Says Private Financing Needed for Shared 5G Facilities

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners representative says investors must step in as large carriers are burdened by high costs of 5G rollout.

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Photo of Drew Clark, Andrew Semenak, Darrell Gentry and Joe Plotkin at Broadband Communities by Benjamin Kahn

HOUSTON, May 3, 2022 – A representative of an infrastructure firm affiliated with Google’s parent company Alphabet on Monday emphasized  the need for private financing in funding open access networks for 5G expansion.

Noah Tulsky, partner at Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, participated in a panel on private financing of broadband infrastructure projects as part of Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment during the Broadband Communities annual summit here.

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners is an independent company. Alphabet is one of many investors in SIP, alongside Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and StepStone Group.

Photo of Shrihari Pandit and David Barron (on Zoom), and, Drew Clark, Andrew Semenak, Darrell Gentry, Joe Plotkin

Tulsky stated that at the present, private investment into shared broadband infrastructure networks is particularly necessary in large part because it is capital intensive for large cellular carriers to expand their rollout of 5G networks.

The market climate of the moment makes it difficult to charge cellular customers higher data rates for 5G implementation as consumers are largely unwilling to pay such fees.

Broadband Breakfast’s event also focused heavily on ideal strategies for fiber builds with additional input from advisory firm Pinpoint Capital Advisors’ managing director Andrew Semenak, internet service provider Next Level Networks’ CEO David Barron and Chief Technology Officer Darrell Gentry, and ISP Stealth Communications’ CEO Shrihari Pandit as well as its Business Development Director Joe Plotkin.

Pandit summed up the central question on discussion, stating “Will throwing more money at broadband help to solve key issues like closing the digital divide and making broadband access more affordable for millions?”

Tulsky has written previously in Broadband Breakfast on the symbiotic relationship fiber has with wireless, stating that “wireless broadband can complement fiber technology, which drive down consumer costs and help close the digital divide.”

He stated Monday that funding from Congress’ bipartisan infrastructure bill is likely the best way to build conduit and predicted that in less wealthy, low-density areas conduit will be funded by the government as opposed to private investors, while small and medium fiber companies will be consolidated into larger companies that focus on city-based fiber deployments.

Information about the presentations made during the “Private Financing” panel are available at the Digital Infrastructure Investment page.

T.J. York contributed reporting to this article.

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Noah Tulsky: Shared Infrastructure Can Make 5G Work For Cities

Cities should prioritize competitive processes to select an open access neutral host infrastructure provider.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Noah Tulsky, partner at Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners.

Wireless data throughput is expected to increase nearly fivefold over the next four years, a surge driven by overall demand for data and enabled by new chipset technology and increased spectrum allocation.

Traditionally wired internet service providers like Comcast and Charter are investing in mobile connectivity, alongside incumbent mobile network operators. Meanwhile, mobile network operators are amortizing their spectrum investments to compete in the fixed broadband market wirelessly.

A quiet but critical race to deploy wireless networks throughout the country is well underway.

For cities and towns, this rapid growth can represent both a blessing and a curse

More demand for fixed and mobile wireless services means more infrastructure in the form of radios close to end users with annual small cell deployments in cities expected to grow at a roughly 25% compound annual rate through 2026.

Uncoordinated growth can cause headaches and have lasting local and national implications for digital equity, urban landscapes and economic growth.

At the same time, cities that harness the wireless revolution can propel themselves into the future.

Wireless broadband can complement fiber technology, which can drive down consumer costs and help close the digital divide.

And 5G mobile connectivity itself is quickly becoming a necessity. Communities without 5G will be cut off from coming technologies that can save lives and spur economic growth, including autonomous vehicles to serve transit deserts, drone-based maintenance of essential infrastructure and distributed renewable energy.

The deployment of 5G must be carefully managed

Not all 5G build-outs are created equal.

If providers build discrete, separate networks, cities can become overwhelmed by permitting requests to mount radios on light poles and street infrastructure.

If three different companies latch their technology onto the same telephone pole, city infrastructure will end up cluttered, and city residents will be understandably frustrated.

These promising technologies might roll out slowly as city departments work through 5G deployment permitting backlogs.

Worse still, service providers might end up building only in the wealthiest areas—where they can most easily recover their investment. Thus, communities and even whole towns at the margins may be left out.

Policymakers have an opportunity to leverage their infrastructure and ensure that networks are built to be compatible with their goals. State and local officials can use their clout to deliver real and lasting value to as many residents as possible.

Seek out neutral hosts through public-private partnerships

Cities should prioritize competitive processes to select an open access neutral host infrastructure provider that can work with multiple carriers to co-locate on shared infrastructure.

A neutral host can marshal private investment to accelerate network builds and organize the service providers on behalf of the city — all while keeping the process competitive.

This type of public-private partnership has a multiplier effect: Private capital can be united with any public broadband funding and directed toward municipal priorities.

In this model, cities also retain control. Leaders can promote equitable build-outs, ensure that neutral hosts commit to aesthetically consistent and minimally invasive infrastructure, and even earn back a portion of the rent that neutral hosts charge from service providers.

At Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, where I work, we believe that the best type of neutral host for a city is one that allows multiple operators to share more than just the passive pole infrastructure, and by doing so reduce the visual clutter of the deployment.

For this reason SIP established its innovation platform CoFi and acquired Dense Air Networks, which uses software-defined networking techniques to share radios among multiple MNO tenants, significantly reducing their rental costs and allowing MNOs to deliver quality service economically in areas that would otherwise be underserved.

Coordinate fiber and wireless builds to put federal funding to highest and best use

Cities can now access unprecedented federal funding to fast-track connectivity.

In the recent infrastructure bill, the federal government allocated $65 billion for broadband expansion, in addition to the $10 billion made available through the American Rescue Plan.

These are huge sums, and as with all government funding, they can be used wisely or poorly.

Much of this funding will go toward building fiber and, if done correctly, cities and their private fiber partners can leverage these dollars to ensure that fiber network plans anticipate and enable wireless footprints as well.

Close consultation with wireless neutral hosts, MNOs, and ISPs can help cities get the most bang for their federal buck.

Cities can also avoid the faulty ideas of the past, such as one-time public WiFi builds. These have largely become cost centers, and they rarely deliver quality connections or cover a meaningful geographic footprint.

Cities can instead allocate funding toward financially sustainable projects, which align incentives and help build networks that can last beyond the limits of federal funding.

The 5G rollout offers an opportunity for cities to correct past mistakes — and bring millions of people online and into the digital economy.

With innovation in public-private partnership models and technology, cities can, and should, harness the secular growth in wireless broadband to their advantage.

Noah Tulsky is a Partner at Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP), where he focuses on SIP’s CoFi platform, which works to advance shared broadband solutions, and 5G strategy. SIP owns, operates, and invests in innovative technology to transform infrastructure systems, advancing scalable solutions to society’s biggest challenges. Previously, Noah worked at Goldman Sachs, where he invested across the power & energy, transportation, and telecommunications & data sectors on behalf of the firm’s infrastructure funds. 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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