Will the U.S. Invest in Next Generation Broadband?

 You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of March 12-16, 2018

Robbie McBeath

The Senate Commerce Committee held three hearings this week on infrastructure. On March 14, the Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet Subcommittee looked at broadband deployment in a hearing titled “Rebuilding Infrastructure in America: Investing in Next Generation Broadband.” The hearing explored the most effective and efficient ways to address broadband deployment to close the digital divide, including reviewing President Donald Trump’s recent infrastructure proposal.  Besides continuing the debate over whether the proposal should contain specific-broadband funding, the hearing also examined the Federal Communications Commission’s collection of broadband data and the role of local and state regulators in the deployment of the next generation of wireless services, 5G.

Earmarked Broadband Funding?

The debate over whether to have federal funding specifically earmarked for improving high-speed internet access has been ongoing since President Donald Trump unveiled his infrastructure proposal on February 12 [See: President Trump's Infrastructure Plan Unveiled, And It's Light on Broadband].

Some GOP-lawmakers support President Trump’s proposal which, through a “Rural Infrastructure Program,” would enable state governors to decide how to spend $40 billion in federal aid. These governors would choose how to address “unique infrastructure challenges” of which broadband would be one kind. “I am greatly encouraged by the President’s support for programs directed toward increasing broadband infrastructure deployment in rural areas,” said Subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS).

Democratic lawmakers, however, would like to see funds specifically earmarked for broadband. In his opening remarks, Commerce Committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) said, “We have to close this digital divide and leave no area of this country behind. That’s why I have wanted to include significant direct investments in broadband deployment in any federal infrastructure legislation. Because the administration’s proposal is woefully inadequate on this point, it is incumbent on this committee to work together to provide these critical investments.”

Communications Subcommittee Ranking Member Brian Schatz (D-HI) warned that Democrats were unlikely to support shifting broadband infrastructure responsibilities to states and localities.

FCC Broadband Data Collection

In his opening statement, Chairman Wicker criticized the broadband data collection methods of the FCC. He noted the importance of collecting standardized and accurate data about where reliable fixed and mobile broadband already exists in order to aid broadband investment decisions. “Inaccurate information of where broadband exists will only exacerbate the digital divide and leave millions of rural Americans further behind,” he said. 

Getting better broadband data has been a priority for Chairman Wicker. The Senate passed the Rural Wireless Access Act of 2017, which Sen. Wicker co-sponsored, on March 1, and is on its way to the House. The bill would:

  • Ensure that wireless coverage data is collected in a consistent and robust way;

  • Improve the validity and reliability of wireless coverage data; and

  • Increase the efficiency of wireless coverage data collection.

And last week, Chairman Wicker led a group of 10 senators in a letter calling on the FCC to fix the apparent gaps in its Mobility Fund Phase II maps that may be caused by bad data. The senators wrote:

We understand that the map was developed based on a preliminary assessment from a one-time data collection effort that will be verified through a challenge process. However, we are concerned that the map misrepresents the existence of 4G LTE services in many areas.  As a result, the Commission’s proposed challenge process may not be robust enough to adequately address the shortcomings in the Commission’s assessment of geographic areas in need of support for this proceeding.

Without accurate data that reflects on-the-ground realities, according to the senators, many consumers may be left without a reliable internet connection and federal resources could be misdirected or otherwise wasted.

At the hearing, Chairman Wicker asked Steve Berry, chief executive officer of the Competitive Carriers Association, a rural wireless industry group, to help explain the problems with the FCC data. Berry replied, “The simple answer to the question is, ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’ I had great hopes that this next round of data requests would produce better quality service maps. What we actually got, though, was very clear: the FCC requested the wrong perimeters.”

Asked about a solution, Mike Romano, a senior vice president at NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, pointed to a process of geocoding every new broadband deployment, so the FCC and other policymakers would know what addresses have service and which do not. [Romano indicated, however, that requiring every provider to geocode every address where service is currently available would be too burdensome.]

5G Deployment

The rollout of 5G wireless services was a focal point of the hearing. Wireless industry representatives warned that China could beat the U.S. in the race to 5G, if 5G small-cell deployment is not exempted from burdensome reviews required by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Mayor Gary Resnick of Wilton Manors, Florida, the panel’s lone local official, urged the Subcommittee to give local governments more of a voice in broadband policymaking and preserve their authority to deal directly with wireless providers on permitting and leasing public rights of way. He identified a number of reasons why most Americans do not have appropriate access to affordable broadband:

  • In many states and in many FCC orders, local governments are preempted from negotiating with broadband providers or regulating broadband service.

  • Even in urban and suburban areas, neighborhoods lack the necessary infrastructure for true in-home or business broadband because of a lack of investment in fiber infrastructure.

  • There is no incentive or regulatory mandate for a private company to build broadband to serve customers in small communities and rural areas that will not generate sufficient profits.

  • Even in neighborhoods with broadband infrastructure, high rates can keep families from getting and maintaining a subscription.

Mayor Resnick stressed that preemption of local authority over small cells is no silver bullet. Instead, he offered six policy solutions:

  1. Congress and the FCC should more actively engage local governments in federal decision-making processes.

  2. Preserve local authority

  3. Allow local governments to implement innovative policies like touch-once, which minimizes the time and disruption necessary to add new broadband providers to existing utility poles

  4. Give cities the freedom to develop municipal broadband networks

  5. Preserve and strengthen federal programs to expand broadband access including the Community Development Block Grant, Choice Neighborhood Grant Program, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, the Rural Utilities Service, and the Universal Service Fund

  6. Free up federal spectrum, streamline access to federal lands, build a database of available infrastructure, and implement common-sense dig once policies for federal construction

  7. Require responsible industry practices including 1) paying for access to public rights-of-way, 2) preparing for emergencies, and 3) repairing and restoring rights-of-way after construction.

FCC Next Steps

At its March 22 meeting, the FCC will be voting on a proposal that would “clarify and modify the procedures for NHPA and NEPA review of wireless infrastructure deployments.” The FCC’s Republican majority plans to vote in favor of de-regulating environmental and labor reviews in order to help expedite wireless buildout.   

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr is leading the effort. This week, he praised a report from consulting firm Accenture, paid for by the wireless industry, that concluded the FCC’s proposed wireless infrastructure order would save Americans $1.56 billion and create more than 17,000 jobs. In an interview this week with Axios, Commissioner Carr laid out his plans for spurring 5G deployment:

As I have looked at the infrastructure docket I’ve divided it into two main buckets, one is the federal historic and environmental review side, which we’re doing this month. The next bucket is going to be taking a look at state and local laws and looking at our authorities under [the primary communications law] to make sure that we’re all headed in the same direction to enable that deployment... The other big piece of it obviously is spectrum and [FCC Chairman Ajit Pai] in Barcelona a couple weeks ago announced that we’re going to hold a 5G auction at the end of [2018].


At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we report that there is great consensus that the U.S. needs to ensure that broadband reaches everywhere. That the future – if not the present, too – belongs to the connected (as FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel frequently says). And there is agreement that we need better, more detailed data about broadband – wired and wireless – than is available today. But there seems to be no agreement about how to extend broadband networks to hard-to-reach, sparsely-populated areas where providers expect little chance to return a profit. Democrats argue that the problem needs substantial investment from the Federal government. Republicans argue that deregulation will make it more attractive for providers to extend their networks. For now, the levers of power are controlled by Republicans, so at the FCC and in Congress, deregulation is the solution du jour.


Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Events Calendar for March

By Robbie McBeath.