The Free State Foundation hosted its Tenth Annual Telecom Policy Conference on March 27. The conference’s first All-Star panel offered policymakers and the audience forward-looking insights befitting the panel’s title: “Solutions for Connecting America and Closing Digital Divides.”
Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee succinctly framed the challenge of connecting digitally excluded people in America: “[W]hen you look at the digital divide, there is still about 11% of Americans who do not have access.” She cited reports by Pew Research indicating that many digitally disconnected persons are over 65, lack a high school diploma, are rural residents, and are poor. Dr. Turner-Lee declared, “they still deserve to be connected in a way that is meaningful or they risk the chance of becoming digitally invisible… that invisibility has consequences over the long run if we do not get this right.”
The panelists stressed the importance of even-handedly promoting investment and of deploying different network technologies – whether fiber, 5G, Wi-Fi, or satellite – in order to provide broadband Internet access services to unserved Americans. Indeed, they emphasized that, at this time, there is a convergence of technological solutions that facilitates use of a mix of different network facilities in providing Internet access to unserved Americans.
Importantly, the panel addressed several policies that all play a role in promoting a multiplicity of next-generation broadband Internet network pathways – all of which are part of the discussion regarding the goal of “connecting all of America.” Some key points are collected here, but please don’t neglect to watch the entire panel discussion on the C-SPAN video beginning around the 38:00 mark.
Make more licensed spectrum available for commercial use.
You heard Chairman Pai this morning talk about two of the higher spectrum bands [28 GHz and 24 GHz] that he wants to see go to auction starting later this year, which is great. We need to keep that going with other bands that the FCC has identified for auction. We need to get those auctions scheduled as well, and it’s the high-band [Chairman Pai identified the above 24 GHz and above 95 GHz bands], its mid-band… in the 3.4-4.2 gigahertz range... Internationally, those bands are getting a lot of attention and it’s important that we harmonize as much as we can around the world. That helps with scale; that helps the people making the devices and making the chips reduce their costs, which means you can have faster and more efficient deployment. -- Tom Power, CTIA
Make more unlicensed spectrum available.
We do need a balanced approach when it comes to spectrum, both with respect to licensed spectrum, which we make available to meet the needs of 5G, but also to meet the needs of Wi-Fi. When we consider all of these devices that we have that are connecting wirelessly, the fact that 80% of that traffic is going over Wi-Fi, that’s a pretty strong amount of work, and that workload is only going to increase over time, as it will for licensed wireless as well… The problem, as I think we all know, with spectrum is you can’t turn on a dime, you essentially have to deal with incumbent users as you find them and try to plan out a long-range strategy over time. So I think it’s critically important that NTIA and other parts of the federal government really take that long-term view, and really put out what is our national plan with respect to both licensed wireless and unlicensed wireless. -- James Assey, NCTA
Remove barriers to wireless infrastructure deployment by clarifying siting rules and setting shorter timelines for action on infrastructure applications.
There’s actually a number of efforts pending on the Hill, and bipartisan efforts, I should say…[T]he efforts that Senators Thune and Schatz have undertaken on infrastructure siting is probably the most effective vehicle I’ve seen right now [S.19, the MOBILE NOW Act]. It would do a couple things in terms of making more uniform the siting rules across the country, so that when you apply to site an antenna or a tower in a public right-of-way, you know what the rules are. It would put timelines, deadlines for local governments to act on those siting requests, with the length of time depending on the nature of the installation. It would also ensure the localities are paid their costs that they incur in overseeing this process… so that you don’t have different players paying different costs for getting essentially the same rights of access. -- Tom Power, CTIA
Remove barriers to wireline infrastructure deployment by further reforming federal policy for pole attachments.
If we want look at places for us to relook at broadband policy, I would say one place that might be fertile territory would be the rules with respect to pole attachments, both to speed up the process by which there is an orderly effort to add new lines to poles, and also maybe to deal with something Congress didn’t deal with in 1996, when it exempted municipal and co-op poles from the federal scheme that we have for poles. I think those would be two places to start. -- James Assey, NCTA
Remove barriers to wireline broadband deployment by reforming digging and siting rules for federal lands.
I had the pleasure of serving on Jonathan Adelstein’s BDAC subcommittee on barriers, and that committee did, I think, a great job of coming together and…coming to agreement on what the barriers to entries were. And a lot of it dealt with federal lands and permitting… Speed to market is really the emphasis there, but it does it very little to address the cost issues. But it’s great getting that moving forward. -- John Jones, CenturyLink
If you look at the rules we’re dealing with forbearing from, most ILECs have lost 70% of their market share across the board from a voice and broadband standpoint. And we still have rules that are pretty far back in time… So any rules that can be forborne from that keep our segment of the industry basically still hamstrung in a wide open field running environment of competition would be, at the highest level, what we would ask for. -- John Jones, CenturyLink
Ensure that broadband subsidy support is targeted to unserved areas.
[A]nother thing that we have hopefully learned from past mistakes is… when we focus on the public subsidy portion of connecting America, to refocus attention on the unserved parts of America, those places that don’t have that broadband to make sure that those scarce resources we have available are not going to basically layer over places we already have built right into private capital. And I’m encouraged by…the omnibus appropriations bill, with respect to the newly created RUS pilot program, that is aimed at ensuring the dollars go to where they’re needed so that we can assess whether these programs are actually working or not. -- James Assey, NCTA
Ensure low-income consumer broadband access by funding Lifeline and preserving eligibility for non-facilities-based providers.
[C]utting the Lifeline program and imposing unnecessary caps will have a detrimental effect on closing the digital divide, especially if the program starts with the assumption that people are trying to outsmart the benefit.
…[S]ome of the assumptions in the Lifeline proposal right now – take the limitations to facility-based providers – regresses on some of the work done over the last couple of years to ensure more competition in the marketplace… I also think that it’s important that we allow USAC to put in the national verifier to reduce some of the redundancies. I think until you actually do some of that stuff it’s very hard to go back in a program that is the only potential lever for people to get online… particularly when you want to talk about closing the digital divide. -- Nicol Turner-Lee, Brookings
To view the panelists’ discussions on those points and on other issues such as Internet freedom and net neutrality regulation, please watch the C-SPAN video of the conference here. The panel on “Solutions for Connecting America and Closing Digital Divides” begins approximately 38 minutes into the video’s run time.
[Note: The quotations by the panel speakers included in this post were taken from the C-SPAN transcription of the Conference, with minor edits made for purposes of correcting obvious syntax, grammar, and punctuation errors. None of the meaning was changed.]