Thursday, December 01, 2022

Senators Urge NTIA to Acknowledge Role of Broadband via Unlicensed Spectrum

Seven Senators representing states with significant rural populations recently expressed their concerns regarding the exclusion of offerings operating solely within unlicensed spectrum from the definition of "Reliable Broadband Service" adopted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in connection with its $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

In a letter dated November 22, 2022, Senators Steve Daines (R-MT), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), John Barrasso, M.D. (R-WY), Cynthia M. Lummis (R-WY), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and John Cornyn (R-TX) urged Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson "to continue working to advance broadband deployment in rural states and unserved areas by remaining technology neutral and creating rules and funding opportunities that allow all forms of broadband technology to compete."

NTIA's Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for the BEAD Program defines "Reliable Broadband Service" in relevant part as "broadband service that … is accessible to a location via … terrestrial fixed wireless technology utilizing entirely licensed spectrum or using a hybrid of licensed and unlicensed spectrum." Conspicuously absent from this list is broadband delivered exclusively by means of unlicensed spectrum.

According to the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), as of July 2020 its members delivered broadband over unlicensed spectrum "to approximately nine million Americans, business, anchor institutions and first responders." As a practical matter, fixed wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) are particularly well suited to "serving the hardest to reach, unserved areas of rural America."

Free State Foundation scholars long have argued that broadband infrastructure subsidy programs should embrace the concept of technological neutrality. For example, in a June 2021 Perspectives from FSF Scholars, FSF President Randolph May and I took issue with President Biden's proposal to "future proof" government-subsidized broadband infrastructure, which we interpreted as an intention to favor blindly fiber over other proven solutions:

Should the Biden Broadband Plan make available massive subsidies solely to one modality – fiber – under the meaningless guise of "future proofing," it will discourage continued private investment in otherwise viable alternatives and undermine the competition given birth by a longstanding adherence to the principle of technological neutrality.

With respect to any given location, its unique features (population density, geographic features, and so on) can favor certain different distribution platforms –including fiber, cable, DSL, 5G, satellite, and fixed wireless – over others. Such factors influence investment choices in the competitive broadband marketplace, and government-led efforts to extend broadband infrastructure to areas still unserved ought to encourage similarly efficient and informed decisionmaking by subsidy recipients.

As it stands, however, the BEAD Program's definition of "Reliable Broadband Service" renders ineligible for subsidies WISPs exclusively utilizing unlicensed spectrum, thereby constraining artificially the pool of potential applicants.

In addition, and as the Senators highlighted in their letter, the exclusion "runs the risk of wasting billions of taxpayer dollars by duplicating services in areas that already have access to speeds well above 25/3 Mbps, 100/20 Mbps or even higher, instead of prioritizing rural communities that are truly unserved."