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Year in Review: Key Developments in Digital Infrastructure with Ramifications for Next Year

Broadband Breakfast is kicking off a year-in-review with key developments in digital infrastructure.

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Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo

WASHINGTON, December 28, 2021 – Broadband Breakfast is kicking off its review of developments from this year with what we view as the key developments in the world of digital infrastructure systems.

The past 12 months saw the inauguration of President Joe Biden and the execution of several policy priorities, which lawmakers have spoken about for years.

The year represented a monumental period of funding expansion and government initiative in attempts to strengthen the digital footprint.

The following are five key themes from 2021 that will have repercussions for next year.

Biden’s historic infrastructure bill

Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in the middle of November, which allocated $65 billion for broadband. The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will oversee the distribution of some $42 billion of that pot to the states.

The bill, which was stalled for months by Democratic Party negotiations over the timeline to pass the legislation in addition to Biden’s social spending reconciliation package, will represent a key mechanism to increase the affordability of high-speed Internet to hard-to-reach communities, in addition to provisions for clean energy and maintenance on physical transportation.

Following years of declared “Infrastructure Weeks” under President Donald Trump’s administration, which never resulted in major legislation to strengthen the nation’s physical and online systems, Biden made infrastructure reform a key priority of his presidency.

Biden’s legislation was called “once in a generation,” and amounts to one of the most expensive infrastructure investments in U.S. history. The Benton Institute for Broadband and Society called it “the largest US investment in broadband deployment ever.”

One key player in the distribution of the funds is former governor of Rhode Island and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who was confirmed by the Senate to head the department in March.

Raimondo takes on a lead role in making sure the bills funds are used effectively and that newly funded projects are rolled out smoothly.

In her statements around the bill’s passage, she has emphasized need for government to work together with the private sector, for the Federal Communications Commission to continue facilitating and increase efforts for granular mapping of broadband availability across the nation so that areas most in need can be properly targeted for projects, and to push for fiber connectivity to ensure best outcomes for consumers.

Another player that could peer into the picture is Alan Davidson, who was nominated by Biden to assume the lead role at the NTIA. He has yet to be approved by the Senate for that position.

The growth of Covid welfare programs

In March, Congress passed Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to provide the U.S. economy with a $1.9 trillion stimulus for COVID-19 pandemic relief.

ARPA was among the largest stimulus plans in U.S. history, which provided grants to state and local governments through its Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.

Several entities used these funds to strengthen broadband infrastructure in their communities, including several across Illinois through the state’s ARPA Accelerator program.

The bill also provided local governments funds that could be used for broadband development through the Capital Projects Fund.

Additionally, ARPA funded the Federal Communications Commission’s $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund to provide tools and services necessary for remote learning to schools and libraries so that they can connect more students in need.

The fund covers reasonable costs of laptop and tablet computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers and broadband connectivity purchases.

The program is consistent with the vision of Biden’s pick to head the FCC Jessica Rosenworcel, who was confirmed by the Senate this month.

Rosenworcel has spent her career addressing this issue and is widely recognized as the first to coin the term “homework gap” to describe the challenges disadvantaged students face in completing school assignments due to digital connectivity barriers.

Supply chain woes

By mid 2021, global supply chain issues, which held up supplies and created product shortages, began to mount and push deep into the back half of the year.

The technology and broadband industries were impacted by these conditions, as they did not have the necessary materials to manufacture products and they additionally faced an international workforce shortage.

One critical area of concern is fiber builds. Dean Mischke, vice president of Finley Engineering Company, which builds out telecommunications infrastructure, warned companies that they need to get ahead of supply purchases beyond next year to secure key fiber supplies.

In Vermont, a public-private partnership came together to purchase thousands of miles of fiber cable at a fixed cost from a cooperative, which said it is expected to see its cost rise by 35 percent due to supply chain issues and inflation.

With federal money raining down on the states, these issues will be a focal point for 2022.

As if that wasn’t enough, the tech and wireless world saw critical shortages of semiconductor chips.

In our ever-more online world, any shortage in essential parts for digital devices is going to be a problem. And it’s been a problem for many months. The a bipartisan bill was introduced to combat the shortage back in June 2020.

Commerce Secretary Raimondo said that Biden plans to address the shortage by incentivizing domestic production of chips.

The trade war between the U.S. and China is commonly cited as another cause of the shortage. Just this month, the U.S. Department of Defense restricted exports of critical technology to a leading Chinese semiconductor manufacturer due to its alleged ties to China’s military.

The ongoing issues have contributed to inflationary pricing among commodities such as groceries and gasoline, the prices of which have peaked in recent months.

U.S. gets tough on Chinese telecom

Throughout the year, the U.S. government took several steps to cut ties with Chinese telecom companies it believes to be aligned with the Chinese government.

A recent Washington Post investigation found that large telecom equipment manufacturer Huawei Technologies has been more involved with Chinese government surveillance efforts than previously revealed.

The corporation had previously denied involvement and said it only sells general purpose networking gear.

Huawei was a big target for the U.S. government, along with several other equipment manufacturers, including ZTE. And axing Chinese companies from the U.S. market represented one of the only common goals of both the Biden and Donald Trump administrations.

In June, the FCC voted to stop authorizing equipment from manufacturers such as ZTE and Huawei, and in July to rip and replace from U.S. infrastructure that same equipment – a move that cost $1.9 billion.

In October, Congress with near unanimous support passed a bipartisan bill prohibiting the FCC from “reviewing or issuing new equipment licenses to companies on” the list of companies that it considers security threats.

Moreover, at the beginning of this month, the Biden administration announced initiatives with international allies to track and combat surveillance in authoritarian countries such as China.

Followed soon after was the DoD’s restrictions on trade to the Chinese semiconductor industry were announced.

The Biden administration’s action on China finds bipartisan support and continues Trump’s push against the U.S. adversary amid increasing tensions between the rivals, with the former president signing a bill last year that banned federal funds from being used to purchase Huawei equipment.

Huge cyberattacks

Finally, this past year has seen some of the country’s most high-profile cyberattacks, which represents another front for adversarial nations to wage war on the U.S.

Oil pipeline system Colonial Pipeline was hacked, shutting down key fuel systems and causing a headache for the Biden administration when gasoline shortages arose.

So was meat producer JBS USA.

But what’s particularly notable about these hacks isn’t necessarily who was hacked, but the sheer number of similar cyberattacks that took place in the U.S. throughout the year.

A House investigation into the year’s most prominent hacks found that “small lapses” in employee behavior, such as accepting fake browser updates and maintaining a weak password, allowed hackers to access company systems.

Further, the investigators believe the companies’ “lack of clear points of contact with the federal government” hampered response efforts to the attacks.

Since the attacks, cyber security officials have asked Congress to push legislation that would require companies to notify the government about cyber breaches.

Lawmakers remain concerned about the security of the U.S.’ critical infrastructure, saying that the precedent of companies, such as Colonial Pipeline and JBS paying ransoms, incentivizes hackers to carry out future attacks.

Infrastructure

AT&T Goes to Court over FCC Decision on Pole Attachment Rates

AT&T said it should pay a similar rate to other telecommunications attachers.

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WASHINGTON, February 6, 2023 – AT&T has gone to court over a Federal Communications Commission decision last fall that said it is not entitled to a lower attachment rate on Duke Energy Progress poles than other telecommunications attachers.

The commission had determined, in response to petitions from AT&T and Duke, that the incumbent telephone carrier paid too much to utility Duke to access its poles. However, because AT&T had an agreement with Duke that conferred onto it advantages not given to other attachers, the commission determined that the telecom would not pay a comparable lower rate as those other attachers.

AT&T filed a complaint to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last month saying it should pay the rate that the FCC considers comparable to cable companies and other third party attachers that are disadvantaged in the agreement process.

“AT&T is adversely affected by certain parts of the Order because the Federal Communications Commission granted AT&T’s pole attachment complaint only in part,” the company said in its complaint against the November decision. “The Order requires AT&T to pay a substantially higher rate for use of Duke’s poles than the just, reasonable, and fully compensatory new telecom rate AT&T’s competitors pay for use of comparable space on the same utility poles.”

In asking for a dismissal of the order, AT&T is asking the court to find the parts in question of the FCC decision violate the Administrative Procedures Act and “are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law.”

The FCC makes determinations on costs to attach to utility poles to ensure that they are “just and reasonable” under the Telecommunications Act. Attaching to poles is a critical component of broadband buildouts. The commission set up a framework to determine what’s a fair rate.

It set a rate ceiling in a 2018 order because incumbent telephone company bargaining power and pole ownership versus utilities had, by then, been in decline. In effect, it revised a presumption set in 2011 that incumbent telephone companies had superior bargaining power versus other telecom attachers and replaced it with the presumption – which took effect in March 2019 – that the two attachers “are similarly situated” and therefore entitled to “comparable” rates.

The caveat to the 2018 order, however, was that the new incumbent telco rates would take effect only if the agreement with the utility was signed after the order’s effective date. Because AT&T and Duke had an existing agreement before 2019, the FCC said it did not qualify for the new rate. It was thus subject to the old telecom rate as a reference.

The FCC concluded that, despite AT&T being entitled to a lower rate, the existing agreement between it and Duke provides AT&T “with benefits that materially advantage it compared to other attachers on the same poles.”

The decision added AT&T is entitled to a pole attachment rate that “does not exceed the Old Telecom Rate, covering the entire timeframe at issue.”

The commission is currently examining whether utilities should share in the cost of replacing those poles, which are often born by the requesting attacher.

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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.

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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. 

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Europe

Helge Tiainen: Fiber Access Extension Eases Connectivity Worries for Operators, Landlords and Tenants

A new law presents an opportunity to reuse existing infrastructure for fiber broadband deployment.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Helge Tiainen, head of product management, marketing and sales at InCoax.

Previously, tenants living in the United Kingdom’s estimated 480,000 blocks of flats and apartments had to wait for a landlord’s permission to have a broadband operator enter their building to install faster connectivity. But that is no longer the case.

At the beginning of the year, a new UK law change meant that millions of UK tenants are no longer prevented from receiving a broadband upgrade due to the silence of their landlords. The Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act allows internet service providers to access a block of flats 35 days after the ISP’s request to the landlord. It is estimated that an extra 2,100 residential buildings a year will be connected as a result.

Broadband companies have advised that currently around 40 percent of their requests for access to install connections in multi-dwelling units are delayed or blocked, due to no landlord response. Undoubtedly, tenants residing in these flats and apartment blocks are those most effected by a lack of accessibility to ultra-fast connectivity. So, how can ISPs grasp this newfound opportunity?

Harnessing the existing infrastructure

For many ISPs, MDUs pose a market that is largely untapped in the UK. Why is this? Well, for starters, typically these types of properties present logistical challenges, and are lower down in the pecking order in terms of the low hanging fruits readily available when it comes to installing fiber to the premises. The more attractive prospects are buildings in densely populated areas that can be covered easily with gigabit broadband.

Whereas, MDUs have typically been those underserved. Signing a broadband contract with a customer in a single-family unit is easier than an MDU as it involves securing permissions from building and apartment owners for construction works, as well as numerous tenants. For those ISPs tasked with upgrading tenants’ existing broadband connections, there are other challenges prevalent such as rising costs, wiring infrastructure changes and contract requirements, including minimum take-up rates.

So, there has been no better time to use the existing infrastructure readily available within the property. A fiber-only strategy can be supplemented if fiber to the extension point is employed where necessary. A multi-gigabit broadband service can be delivered at a lower cost and reach more customers over existing infrastructure for a short section of wire leading to the customer premises and inside the premises.

Bringing gigabit connectivity floor to floor

The UK government hopes that 85% of the UK will be able to access gigabit fixed broadband by 2025. However, installing fiber to every flat can be a challenge that is expensive, labor-intensive and disruptive to customers. Landlords may be hesitant to grant permissions due to the aforementioned reasons and potential cosmetic damage caused. Historically, fiber deployments in MDUs can be as much as 40% of fiber to the building deployment costs.

MDU buildings have existing coaxial networks, and reusing this infrastructure is a tangible possibility and time-saving alternative for ISPs instead of installing fiber direct to the premises. Which can be costly if the take-up rate is low for new services. The coaxial networks in MDUs can be used in an innovative way as in-building TV networks are upgraded to support higher frequency spectrums thanks to the analogue switchover to digital TV services.

ISPs can potentially opt to use fiber access extension technology for a cost-effective and less complex upgrade of broadband as it utilizes the existing in-house coax cable infrastructure. The technology provides multi-gigabit broadband services, positioning it as a clear frontrunner when optical fiber cannot be deployed due to construction limitations, a lack of ducts, building accessibility, and technical or historical preservation reasons.

Time for change

Not only does this landmark new law allow ISPs to seek rights to access a flat or an apartment if the landlord required to grant access is unresponsive, but it also prevents any situations where a tenant is unable to receive a service simply due to the silence of a landlord.

This is a crucial opportunity to reuse existing infrastructure for broadband access as TILPA enables subscribers and service providers to circumvent landlords who fail to provide access permission.

As many ISPs look to seamlessly execute their fiber deployment strategies, using cost-effective solutions can accelerate the addressable number of subscribers and allow for a major return on investment.

As head of product management, marketing and sales at InCoax, Helge Tiainen is responsible for developing sales and marketing of existing products and new business opportunities among cable, telecom and mobile operators by developing use cases and technologies within standard organizations as Broadband Forum, MoCA, Small Cell Forum and other working groups. He also manages partnerships of key technology partners suited with InCoax initiatives. 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 reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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