Last month, Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai announced a new plan to allocate $9 billion toward deploying 5G wireless in America’s rural areas. From these funds, $1 billion would be earmarked for precision agriculture.
The 10-figure sum is impressive, but it’s not all new money. Pai would repurpose $4.5 billion already allocated for a rural 4G build-out. The actual investment boost amounts to about $450 million per year.
The funding targets and the program details are, however, subject to change, especially as public comments roll in. Nonetheless, telecommunications companies, resellers, and consumers are eager to move forward.
The question is whether this plan can overcome the problems of previous rural connectivity initiatives. The failings of the Mobility Fund for 4G was the topic of an FCC report unveiled alongside Pai’s 5G announcement. This study confirmed what many rural leaders and residents have been saying—that they haven’t received as much improvement in mobile access as they’d been told.
The problem and promise of rural connectivity
Rural telecommunications access is an enduring issue. After almost a century of investment in universal service, the U.S. has not managed to bring telephone, let alone data, to all households. As late as 2018, 8 million adults and 2.4 million children lived where no telephone service—landline or mobile—was available.
This represents a severe impairment in today’s increasingly digital economy, as do the limited, dial-up speeds provided to approximately 35 percent of rural Americans. Against this backdrop, cell service offers great hope. Just like developing countries expect to “leapfrog” landlines to deploy advanced wireless technologies in their stead, rural America desperately wants to put its faith in 5G.
The promise here is difficult to overstate. Precision agriculture alone—leveraging remote sensors, GPS, self-driving farm equipment, and so on—could radically reduce wasted seed, fertilizer, and fuel while increasing yields. This is how the breadbasket of the world will help feed a burgeoning population.
Equally important would be gains in education. Digital technologies can bring advanced courses and targeted services, from interactive computer programming classes to special needs counseling, to remote schools that struggle to support the specialized staff.
Better connectivity would also accelerate small towns’ economic development and reduce the need for domestic migration to large cities, as businesses take advantage of the often-underutilized labor pool and lower costs when bringing jobs to these “forgotten” areas. And the benefits would extend to aging local populations, with telehealth to complement traditional medicine and online interactions to combat social isolation.
Unfortunately, the leap to 5G is not as simple as it may sound. The Mobility Fund to implement 4G was plagued by problems. An FCC report found rampant overstatement of access improvements and connectivity speeds delivered under Phase I. Even as the U.S. looks to replace Mobility Fund Phase II with a 5G Fund, there are technical and policy challenges that could, if not properly accounted for, exacerbate issues with federal broadband investment.
Questions about the FCC’s new direction
There are any number of details to be finalized, but the following represent four critical questions, which can help determine if the FCC plan comprises a viable solution for our rural areas.
#1 Will leapfrogging work?
First off, is it feasible to skip 4G and LTE? Some say not. Various state-level leaders consider the abandonment of 4G plans a “slap in the face” to their communities. They bemoan the likely delay of implementing even basic mobile connectivity in severely underserved communities. Furthermore, focusing on 5G could undermine the ultimate goal of connecting rural areas if the technology and implementation are not up to the specific challenges in these geographies.
In reality, 5G adds new technical issues. Its extreme line-of-sight limitations will be felt in urban areas and cannot be avoided in the hollers of Appalachia or well-forested parts of Idaho. Also important is range. 4G carries about 10 miles, 5G about 1,000 feet, at least at the frequency band the three largest US carriers are building. The requisite stations for 5G are not as large or as power hungry, but they would still need to be deployed across nearly three-quarters of the nation’s landmass representing our rural areas—about 1.75 billion acres. That makes a $9 billion investment look awfully inadequate.
One might argue that a complement of technologies would do a better job of rapidly meeting rural residents’ needs. This might mean using 4G and LTE for remote residential coverage and initially concentrating 5G in small towns where businesses and people congregate. Such alternatives to an “all 5G” approach deserve to be explored.
#2 Is the fiber foundation adequate?
More so even than 4G LTE, 5G demands fiber. South Korea has a lot of it, and the country was able to reach 2 million 5G users within four months. In the U.S., on the other hand, those 5G-enabled football stadiums we keep hearing about still aren’t performing reliably.
A 2017 Deloitte study estimated that building a robust fiber network across the U.S. would cost about $80 billion. Private investment is unlikely to address the needs in rural areas, at least in the near-term, without more government support but will it be forthcoming? Due to this issue, various organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, may continue to argue for last-mile fiber to the home as the more important step forward.
#3 How will maintenance be handled—and funded?
Another consideration, it is not only more difficult and expensive to build telecommunications capabilities in frontier regions, maintaining and repairing these networks is also very costly. When a single truck roll might comprise a hundred-mile journey or more, the combination of transportation costs and field technician time rapidly add up—frequently to more than the served population supports with their monthly bills.
It will be relatively useless to deploy 5G across rural America without plans for maintaining the networks over the long-term. This will likely require public investment along with industry innovations in the areas of monitoring and maintenance optimization. Powerful tools that tap business intelligence and data analytics, machine learning, and eventually AI will be critical in spreading available dollars further while maximizing uptime in rural cell service.
#4 Can oversight be improved?
Oversight is another important question, especially after revelations about the Mobility Fund Phase I’s shortcomings. Resellers, consumers, and taxpayers have every reason to demand increased transparency and accountability.
Telecommunications companies will, of course, want to see flexibility in the metrics targets for which they will be held accountable, their reporting responsibilities, and the government’s enforcement mechanisms. The FCC will most certainly be receiving comments about carriers’ needs to respond to actualities on the ground and ensure administrative concerns do not drain funds from actual 5G deployment. Telecoms will also be highlighting the many failures in reporting protocols that contributed to inaccuracies in Mobility Fund assessments.
The public comment period doesn’t close until April 30, so there is little choice but to take a wait-and-see attitude for now. But America’s global competiveness is on the line, so it would behoove industry experts and consumers alike to weigh in on the 5G Fund. Only with diverse insights from across the country can the FCC shape smart policy to cost-efficiently build what our rural communities need to survive and thrive—world-class broadband.
About the author:
Gordon Smith is the President and CEO of Sagent, where he has developed customer programs, built industry partnerships and expanded service offerings for telecom carrier and cable MSO networks. Prior to joining Sagent, Smith was vice president of services at Tempest Telecom Solutions. He is a licensed professional engineer and holds a master’s degree in business administration from Goizueta Business School at Emory University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Waterloo in Canada.
BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to email@example.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Breakfast Media LLC.
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.
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.
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.
Noah Tulsky: Shared Infrastructure Can Make 5G Work For Cities
Cities should prioritize competitive processes to select an open access neutral host infrastructure provider.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
5G Will Impact the Future Beyond Previous Generations of Wireless, Company Execs Say
With every generation of wireless technology new applications reveal themselves, and experts say 5G is no exception.
WASHINGTON, March 28, 2022 – As 5G continues to deploy at a faster rate than any previous generation of wireless technology, some experts argue that the next ten years will lead to more disruption and innovation in society than the last 20 years combined.
During the “AT&T Policy Forum on 5G and Innovation” on March 15, David Christopher, AT&T’s executive vice president and general manager of partnerships and 5G ecosystem development, argued that the next decade will be defined by “mega-tends” that will be enabled by 5G technology.
He pointed out that each generation of wireless technology advanced what kind of activities consumers could engage in – from being able to make calls with 1G all the way to being able to participate in online shopping from almost anywhere in the world with 4G. Similarly, Christopher argued that 5G will enable consumers to participate in things like artificial intelligence, precision medicine, driverless cars, blockchain, and the metaverse.
“These ‘mega-trends’ build off each other and they accelerate any one individual trend,” Christopher said. Christopher said that the deployment of and use of 5G technologies will contribute to 4.5 million new jobs and $1.4 trillion towards the economy between 2020 and 2030. “None of that takes into account the economic impact of all the mega trends I just spoke of, and how they build on each other.”
Christopher added that in addition to all the benefits of 5G, it is being deployed faster than previous networks. “Look at the fact that 5g is actually being rolled out 40 percent faster than 4G was – from a network build perspective – across all carriers in the United States.”
“We are now at the point – poised for the arrival of applications, of services, and of new business model innovation that rides on top of [5G] just like we saw with 4G,” he said. “5G is all about making everything connected, whether it is faster speeds, lower latency – with features like edge computing, network slicing, better security, private networks, massive IoT – all of these are going to enable applications that were simply not possible in 4G.”
John Smee, chip maker Qualcomm’s senior vice president of engineering and global head of wireless research, explained that the 5G era is now well underway and has left the early stages of its infancy behind. “We are, in some sense, almost halfway through the standardization of 5G,” Smee said. “Now we are embarking on 5G ‘advanced’ – it is a new point of inflection.”
Smee said that Qualcomm’s priorities are now looking past how to simply ensure that all consumers have access to 5G, and has shifted to the specific technology capabilities that will define the generation. He said that Qualcomm has now raised the questions, “what is going to differentiate 5G from 4G [and] how can we make sure it’s a full decade of innovation?”
For Qualcomm, Smee said, this will include innovations such as an expanded cloud network, improved device machine learning and AI, and low-latency application processing at the edge of the networks.
“5G really is a platform for good,” Christopher said. “Whether it’s education, whether it’s climate, whether it’s innovation, and we are just getting going.”
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