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

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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

Google, Reliant On Success of 5G, Says It Wants Government-Funded Test Beds for Open RAN

Company says that the next generation of its products depend on 5G progress.

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Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai

WASHINGTON, October 20, 2021 — Google made its case for regulators to make room for greater public-private collaboration in the wake of 5G and more research into open radio access network technologies.

Speaking at the FCBA’s “What’s New and Next in Wireless” session on Tuesday, Michael Purdy from Google’s product and policy team emphasized Google’s interest in the emerging 5G landscape, but wants a “collaborative environment” for innovation.

“5G is exciting because of Google’s products depend on 5G,” he said. “[Our] products can’t come to market without it.” Google’s recent product launches include smart-home technologies. Purdy says their products’ benefits are enhanced as 5G is deployed.

Google, like the technology sector at large, is building on the innovation that the “app economy” produced using existing 4G technology and plans to expand their software capabilities with 5G. “The app economy benefited consumers,” Purdy says. “Our lifestyles are going to depend on 5G.” For telehealth, “real time medical advice needs low latency [and] high speeds.”

However, Google hopes for better regulatory conditions during 5G deployment. “We haven’t been as focused on the FCC [for guidance] . . . we want stability to determine spectrum policy.”

Purdy said the company hopes to work collaboratively with government to find solutions for wider 5G deployment. “[We] want to know what position the government takes in creating an open RAN environment.”

The company said it wants government funded-test beds for open RAN, research into development to ensure that “the downside costs are defrayed.” In overcoming these challenges to 5G deployment, Purdy said Google wants the government to foster a “collaborative environment” to develop open RAN. “We don’t want government picking winners and losers in the innovation process” he said.

Purdy added that spectrum sharing between licensed and unlicensed users “can be good for consumers and for industry.”

The Federal Communications Commission has pushed for ways to develop open RAN to minimize network security risk, as the movement has gained significant momentum. FCC Acting Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has described open RAN as having “extraordinary potential for our economy and national security.”

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5G

Huawei Avoids Network Security Questions, Pushes 5G Innovation

Huawei’s CTO avoided questions about concerns over its network infrastructure security as countries ban its products.

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Huawei carrier business CTO Paul Scanlan.

WASHINGTON, October 19, 2021 — Huawei’s chief technology officer did not address questions Monday about the company’s network security practices during a session on how 5G drives economic growth, but said the focus should be on the evolutionary technology instead.

Paul Scanlan, Huawei’s CTO in the carrier business group, focused his presentation at the Economist Impact Innovation@Work conference on the promise of 5G technology and ignored concerns about network safety.

“We can service more customers with 5G” to start bridging the digital divide, he said. The pandemic has given the company an insight into customer behavior to better channel its data traffic needs. “5G performs better for the types of services we use now” he says, such as video streaming and user-generated content.

Scanlan avoided specific questions about his company’s technology and steered the conversation toward providing faster speeds for the health care industry. “Give me some use instances where the company has introduced 5G and helped companies be efficient” asked the moderator, Ludwig Siegele. “I’d like to stick on the health care sector, that’s more topical as you can imagine,” Scanlan responded.

“People are missing [innovation in 5G] because of geopolitical issues around the world,” said Scanlan. “Being able to collect the data and analyze it is where the business benefit lies . . . 5G adoption through the [standardized network] ecosystem is very important and we see this with 5G” for interoperability with other companies and providers.

Huawei’s promotion of their telecommunications products continues as the U.S. maintains national security sanctions against the tech giant. The impact of U.S. sanctions results a drop in sales for the company in 2021. The FCC has also recommended that Huawei’s equipment be listed as “high risk” to U.S. network security. Huawei told the FCC it cannot show the company’s equipment is a threat to U.S. networks.

Huawei’s global head of cybersecurity said this summer that President Joe Biden‘s executive order banning investments in Chinese companies is a “policy misstep” that will not only lose the U.S. a huge market, but will just make the company more self-sufficient.

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Celebrating Progress on 5G, the FCC’s Brendan Carr Urges Broadband Mapping

5G crusader Commissioner Brendan Carr voiced pride in the FCC’s focus on 5G over the past four years

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Photo of Brendan Carr from the Tennessee Star

WASHINGTON, October 15, 2021–Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr on Friday celebrated U.S. progress in 5G wireless investment and urged the completion of the agency’s broadband mapping initiative.

Speaking a the Free State Foundation gala luncheon, Carr argued that the United States has progressed in its 5G investments and is catching up to foreign networks. ”Years ago we imaged the U.S. would be left behind in 5G,” he said.

He touted his and former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s efforts to “remove the red tape.” Enabling the private sector has paid off, he said: The U.S. has jumped 20 places on the country internet speed index, signaling the installation of more robust U.S. 5G networks.

Further, the FCC should complete its broadband mapping process and take caution with the federal money allocated toward broadband deployment, he said, adding that he asked the FCC earlier this year to complete its map by fall 2021.

“There’s planning that can take place when the maps are completed” he said, reflecting a desire from the public and private sector for better, more accurate broadband maps.

He also said that federal money allocated toward the FCC’s efforts to bridge the digital divide should be used carefully, and that money to connect unconnected Americas should not be wasted.

Carr celebrated American investment in 5G progress earlier this year, calling U.S. leadership in 5G “one of the greatest success stories in of the past four years.” In that time, the FCC opened up more than six gigahertz of spectrum for 5G services.

Former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly also gave remarks at the event, expressing concern about the federal Made In America policy’s implications on the telecommunications sector.

The Made in America policy refers to President Biden’s push to increase American made content in supply chains. O’Rielly, who left the Commission in December 2020, argued that the policy limits telecommunications companies to the kinds of products that can be made available to consumers.

The Free State Foundation’s Randy May at the Friday event

He also questioned “what it means to be an American manufacturer” because foreign companies are “in essence, being punished by law” for having “investments in the U.S. with U.S. workers as part of a U.S. subsidiary.”

In O’Rielly’s view, the location of the companies headquarters does not impact its national security risk to the U.S.

The remarks by Carr and O’Rielly were at the 15th anniversary celebration for the free-market think tank. Carr said that the foundation has been an “invaluable resource” and has been cited more than 200 times in FCC decisions.

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