We have seen a lot of hype about 5G wireless technology in the news lately, and in the halls of government. But in March, at a hearing about broadband infrastructure, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mt.) asked a critical question: “How do we get 5G into rural America?”
Indeed, senator. How?
5G is exciting. It’s about ultra-high-speed broadband; ultra-low latency for mission-critical applications; and more dynamic, efficient networks supporting billions of IoT devices.
But two critical points have been missing: 5G is not synonymous with mobile wireless. “Winning the race to 5G” does not mean we need to let the most powerful companies in the mobile wireless industry define the rules of the road.
Moreover, we cannot let 5G marketing hype distract us from the overwhelming, bipartisan agreement at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that connecting rural and small-town America is our top telecommunications policy priority.
As one telecom engineer recently put it, the “killer use case” for 5G initially will be greater data capacity in congested urban markets. Greater capacity in urban areas is a valid and important use case. But it doesn’t do anything for rural and under-served areas, where 24 million Americans have “no G,” and where fixed wireless broadband operators do not have enough access to good spectrum to reach customers that are within range of their towers right now.
If we want those with “no G” to be connected, policymakers need to focus on smart, balanced spectrum policy, not just promise more subsidies.
The Federal Communications Commission is currently weighing some critically important decisions on the rules governing two prime spectrum bands called CBRS and the C Band.
The current CBRS rules were actually designed to accelerate investment in rural broadband and other innovative local services by auctioning off rights to use the spectrum in small, community-sized license areas. But changes being pushed by the mobile wireless industry would revert to huge regional license areas and take away the opportunity for rural and small providers to participate in the CBRS band.
The proposed changes in the C Band are a bit more complex, but the choice is the same: Adopt the “same ol’” approach that has never worked for rural America and let the largest corporations control these spectrum bands; or adopt a more balanced approach that gives rural and small providers a role as well.
If the FCC gets it right on these rules, we will see more participants in the spectrum auctions, and that will mean more auction revenue, more competition, and more innovation, including 5G use cases in urban and rural areas.
Most importantly, getting the rules right will empower hundreds of small, rural, local broadband providers across the nation to invest in their networks – resulting in a rapid increase in the number of rural and small-town Americans who can receive broadband service in their homes and places of work – even if that place is miles from town or on a tractor.
This is not wishful thinking. It is a proven fact that fixed wireless technology can deliver reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband, within months, not years, at a fraction of the cost of other broadband technologies, in hard-to-reach places where it would require millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to install fiber.
Getting back to Sen. Tester’s question, which has been voiced by every member of Congress who represents rural and small-town areas, the answer is: No other government policies would do as much to close the digital divide for rural America as getting the mid-band spectrum rules right.
As Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” The FCC has a golden opportunity to help transform connectivity in those corn fields. Preserving small license areas in CBRS and authorizing fixed wireless services in a large portion of the C Band will ensure this opportunity is not squandered and will finally give rural families and businesses the same access to broadband connectivity as consumers in urban areas.
Claude Aiken is president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, which represents more than 800 fixed-wireless internet service providers across the United States.
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