Connect with us

5G

Gordon Smith: Can a 5G Fund Connect Rural America at 21st Century Speeds?

Published

on

Photo of Gordon Smith, CEO of Sagent, provided by the author

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.

Next Steps

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 commentary@broadbandcensus.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

5G

Innovation Fund’s Global Approach May Improve O-RAN Deployment: Commenters

The $1.5 billion Innovation Fund should be used to promote global adoption, say commenters.

Published

on

Illustration about intelligent edge computing from Deloitte Insights

WASHINGTON, February 2, 2023 – A global approach to funding open radio access networks will improve its success in the United States, say commenters to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The NTIA is seeking comment on how to implement the $1.5 billion appropriated to the Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund as directed by the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The grant program is primarily responsible for supporting the promotion and deployment of open, interoperable, and standards-based radio access networks. 

Radio access networks provide critical technology to connect users to the mobile network over radio waves. O-RAN would create a more open ecosystem of network equipment that would otherwise be reliant on proprietary technology from a handful of companies.  

Global RAN

Commenters to the NTIA argue that in order for O-RAN to be successful, it must be global. The Administration must take a “global approach” when funding projects by awarding money to those companies that are non-U.S.-based, said mobile provider Verizon in its comments.  

To date, new entrants into the RAN market have been the center for O-RAN development, claimed wireless service provider, US Cellular. The company encouraged the NTIA to “invest in proven RAN vendors from allied nations, rather than focusing its efforts on new entrants and smaller players that lack operational expertise and experience.” 

Korean-based Samsung Electrontics added that by allowing trusted entities with a significant U.S. presence to compete for project funding and partner on those projects, the NTIA will support standardizing interoperability “evolution by advancing a diverse global market of trusted suppliers in the U.S.” 

O-RAN must be globally standardized and globally interoperable, Verizon said. Funding from the Public Wireless Innovation Fund will help the RAN ecosystem mature as it desperately needs, it added.  

Research and development

O-RAN continues to lack the maturity that is needed for commercial deployment, agreed US Cellular in its comments. The company indicated that the complexity and costliness of system integration results from there being multiple vendors that would need to integrate but are not ready for full integration. 

Additionally, interoperability with existing RAN infrastructure requires bi-lateral agreements, customized integration, and significant testing prior to deployment, the comment read. The complicated process would result in O-RAN increasing the cost of vendor and infrastructure deployment, claimed US Cellular, directly contrary to the goals of O-RAN. 

Several commenters urged the NTIA to focus funding projects on research and development rather than subsidizing commercial deployments.  

The NTIA is already fully engaged in broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas through its Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, said Verizon. The Innovation Fund will better advance its goals by funding projects that accelerate the solving of remaining O-RAN technical challenges that continue to delay its deployment, it continued. 

US Cellular argued that the NTIA should “spur deployment of additional independent testing and certification lab facilities… where an independent third party can perform end to end testing, conformance, and certification.” 

The Innovation Fund should be used to focus on technology development and solving practical challenges, added wireless trade association, CTIA. Research can focus on interoperability, promotion of equipment that meets O-RAN specifications, and projects that support hardware design and energy efficiency, it said. 

Furthermore, CTIA recommended that the Administration avoid interfering in how providers design their networks to encourage providers to adopt O-RAN in an appropriate manner for their company. Allowing a flexible, risk-based approach to O-RAN deployments will “help ensure network security and stability,” it wrote. 

Continue Reading

5G

CES 2023: Commissioner Starks Highlights Environmental Benefits of 5G Connectivity

Starks also said federal housing support should be linked to the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Published

on

Photo of FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks (left) and CTA’s J. David Grossman

LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2023 – Commissioner Geoffrey Starks of the Federal Communications Commission spoke at the Consumer Electronics Show Saturday, touting connectivity assistance for individuals who benefit from housing assistance as well as the potential environmental benefits of 5G.

The FCC-administered Affordable Connectivity Program subsidizes monthly internet bills and one-time devices purchases for low-income Americans. Although many groups are eligible – e.g., Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollees – Starks said his attention is primarily on those who rely on housing support.

“If you are having trouble putting food on your table, you should not have to worry about connectivity as well,” Starks said. “If we are helping you to get housed, we should be able to connect that house,” he added.

Environmental benefits of 5G

In addition to economic benefits, 5G-enabled technologies will offer many environmental benefits, Starks argued. He said the FCC should consider how to “ensure folks do more while using less,” particularly in the spheres of spectral and energy efficiency.

“This is going to take a whole-of-nation (approach),” Starks said. “When you talk to your local folks – mayors – state and other federal partners, making sure that they know smart cities (and) smart grid technology…making sure that we’re all unified on thinking about this is exactly where we need to go to in order to drive down the carbon emissions.”

Continue Reading

5G

CES 2023: 5G Will Drive Safer Transportation

More comprehensive data-sharing is made possible by the reduced latency of 5G, CES hears.

Published

on

Photo of Aruna Anand, Durga Malladi, and Derek Peterson (left to right)

LAS VEGAS, January 5, 2023 – Panelists at the Consumer Electronics Show 2023 on Thursday touted the potential for 5G to make transportation safer by enabling information sharing between vehicles and with infrastructure.

5G is expected to expand connectivity by attaching small cell connectivity equipment on various city infrastructure, including traffic lights and bus shelters. 

More comprehensive data-sharing is made possible by the reduced latency of 5G, said Aruna Anand, president and CEO of Continental Automotive Systems Inc., referring to connectivity communications times. Anand argued that making relevant information available to multiple vehicles is key to improving safety.

“We give more information about the surroundings of the vehicle to the car to enable [it] to make better decisions,” Anand said.

Durga Malladi, senior vice president and general manager for cellular modems and infrastructure at chip maker Qualcomm, described a 5G-enabled “true ubiquitous data space solution” in which vehicles and smart infrastructure – e.g., traffic lights and stop signs – communicate with one another.

Asked for predictions, Malladi forecasted an increased “blend” of communications and artificial intelligence technologies. Anand said 6G is expected to emerge by 2028 and make its way to vehicle technology by 2031.

Both realized and predicted innovations in 5G-enabled technologies have driven calls for expanded spectrum access, from private and public sectors alike. The Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the respective overseers of non-federally and federally-used spectrum, in August agreed to an updated memorandum of understanding on spectrum management

Although relatively new, this agreement has already been touted by officials.

The FCC, whose spectrum auction authority Congress extended in December, made several moves last year to expand spectrum access.

Continue Reading

Signup for Broadband Breakfast

Twice-weekly Breakfast Media news alerts
* = required field

Broadband Breakfast Research Partner

Trending