Public Safety Advocate: Rural Broadband Update, FCC Update

There is certainly a lot happening in the field of wireless communications. Next week I will be commenting on the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling on public-safety 4.9-GHz spectrum, but this week I want to back up and talk more about broadband for those in rural areas who do not have broadband and those who may have broadband available but not the financial resources to pay for broadband to their homes or elsewhere.

Rural Broadband

The infrastructure bill being discussed by Congress and the Executive Branch currently includes $65 billion for rural broadband deployment, which is down from the original $100 billion. It is not yet clear if this bill, as currently written, will capture the votes needed in both Houses of Congress and be signed by the President.

In the meantime, others are introducing rural broadband bills in Congress. States are initiating new broadband initiatives and, in many cases, preparing to fund the rural broadband needed within their state.

One bill being discussed in Congress requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate some of the funds from future spectrum auctions to continue its broadband initiatives

The last eight months have raised the awareness that all people within the United States need access to affordable broadband. Yet I am concerned that there does not seem to be a central focus on what is needed to accomplish this. In the meantime, vendors are proceeding down paths they feel will have the best results. While there is plenty of funding for broadband expansion all over the country offered by federal grants, federal loans, and state funding, there is no planning or coordination for the use of these funds to provide broadband to as many people as possible, using the most appropriate technologies for the most efficient expansion. For example, today, many broadband providers choose to run fiber to every house, business, and farm. However, this does not provide wide-area access to broadband unless it is coupled with radio spectrum to provide mobile access.

Further, I do not see any coordination surrounding spectrum allocations, spectrum usage, and fiber deployments. There are many segments of radio spectrum available to accommodate point-to-point microwave, point-to-multipoint wireless, fiber, and satellite systems. Again, there is no coordination between the various broadband deployments. While we speed toward providing broadband for everyone, we must avoid creating pockets with broadband services that are not compatible with broadband services in other areas. 

Today we have wireless broadband operators licensed to operate in portions of spectrum capable of providing high-speed broadband access using 4G, 5G, and perhaps 6G in the future. The FCC has granted access to a separate portion of spectrum for Tribal nations to provide broadband within their communities. Recently, new portions of spectrum including Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and other mid-band radio spectrum have become available for broadband deployment. Add little Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites and point-to-multipoint wireless to that and it becomes clear that if we don’t establish some form of overall coordination we will create pockets of broadband access that require different devices on different portions spectrum, meaning users within one of these broadband pockets will not be able to communicate outside of their area without having to purchase a different device. 

As lawmakers in Washington and the various states move forward with plans to provide nationwide broadband, it is imperative that spectrum usage be coordinated to provide interoperability.

Previously, more chunks of spectrum have been added to enable mobile devices to provide infra-system mobile capabilities. However, at some point, it will no longer be possible to build devices capable of including the amount of spectrum it will take to serve everyone regardless of where they happen to be. This could result in one-off devices, which would cost broadband users more while not necessarily providing service in broadband areas using different spectrum.

In addition to all the above, some states including Washington are changing their rules to permit utilities to enter the broadband business. In a similar move, you might recall that a number of years ago, many cities and counties jumped on the Metro Wi-Fi bandwagon. Before Metro Wi-Fi became the next big thing, Metrocom deployed access points using unlicensed 900-MHz spectrum, adding Wi-Fi capabilities as they became available. In Phoenix, if you look up, you will see Metrocom mobile phone base stations mounted on streetlights even though they have not been active for years.

Missing during the Metro Wi-Fi explosion were a solid business case and a combination outdoor/indoor connectivity. Most Muni Wi-Fi systems have been disabled but New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and others move forward with Muni Wi-Fi without being able to define a business model.

Some spectrum being used for broadband services (6 GHz for example) is slated to be shared with critical-communications microwave users, but this may introduce interference to existing critical microwave deployments and temporarily-deployed microwave links. Spectrum such as that allocated for Tribal communities also needs to be considered and included in an overall spectrum deployment scheme for broadband.

Broadband Patchwork

I believe it is imperative for all parties involved in funding, building, and implementing broadband services must work together to ensure we don’t end up with a patchwork of disparate broadband systems. 

Congress has put forth legislation several times to help close the rural broadband digital divide, and some of these plans have wisely included a central organization or agency to coordinate deployment of broadband systems across the country. I believe we need to establish a way to coordinate use of fiber, portions of the wireless spectrum, and satellite communications even before funding is made available.

I also believe the best way to proceed with providing broadband to everyone is not for every state, agency, or individual county to go its own way. Rather, there must be some degree of coordination so at the end of the day, when everyone has access to broadband, it will be universal.

FCC Update

There are currently four FCC Commissioners. Normally, there are three Commissioners of the same party as the sitting President and two from the minority party. The press is indicating that there may be a pending nomination for the third Democratic Commissioner. There is also speculation and support for appointing Jessica Rosenworcel, Acting Chairwoman, to Chairwoman of the FCC.                        

I am hopeful Ms. Rosenworcel will be appointed and approved by the Senate as the permanent FCC Chairwoman. If so, we will see more and better spectrum management. Repeating myself, I would very much like to see a new FCC Advisory Council made up of communications professionals from public-safety communications, perhaps who are also working with public-safety or other critical-communications systems. Last week, I noted that public-safety groups have come together to work for the betterment of the entire public-safety community. The addition of an Advisory Council that will meet with and discuss issues with the FCC Commissioners will provide balance by discussing plans for both future spectrum allocations and sharing spectrum and offering recommendations. So far, the new FCC Commission has been responsive to many of the activities relating to spectrum management.

There are many ways to implement broadband access in rural areas. There are also a number of different ways to provide broadband access in existing coverage areas to users who cannot afford the monthly fees.

We have at our disposal numerous ways of providing broadband access to those who do not yet have access. In an ideal world, every section of the nation would be served by at least two broadband suppliers. This would ensure the best possible pricing everywhere. Unfortunately, there may not be a feasible financial model to support more than one broadband provider in a given area, at least as part of an initial buildup. Funding should not be only for the cost of construction, it needs to include funds for operational costs, insurance, site rentals, equipment, and other costs associated with operating a broadband network. In this way, as the network is deployed, operational costs will be covered to ensure continued operation of the network.

We have many choices for putting together the best, fastest, and most economical broadband services. I favor fiber or high-speed microwave to a hub, then out to wireless broadband to cover an area. For solid in-building coverage, fiber could be extended to some facilities, or the wide-area network could rely on in-building technologies such as those being proposed for in-building 5G and Wi-Fi 6.

As we move toward broadband for all, there needs to be serious planning and discussion of each area of the nation to be covered. Discussions should include how to provide efficient broadband services to an area, how to include in-building service and wide-area deployment, and how to achieve interoperability.  All at a cost that will be reasonable for low-income homes.

Among many in federal and state governments there is the belief that fiber to the premise is the only true broadband. Other agencies seem to have decided we should go directly to 5G and not waste time with 4G broadband. The reality is that different areas will have different requirements, deployment costs, sizes of areas to be covered, and types of users in an area. All these factors and more need to be taken into consideration on the way to determination of the best technology or technologies to deploy in a given area.

Hopefully, we are finally on the verge of being able to fund broadband for everyone within the United States, but we need to do it in a manner that provides the best throughput and accessibility.

Winding Down

This week, there has been some positive movement from the current FCC Commission in regard to public-safety communications. Next week, I plan a deep-dive into the current status of what FCC Commissioners recently voted on and the next steps for public safety and possibly the critical-communications industry as a whole.

As I said last week, now that the public-safety community has once again come together to take action and provide input to the FCC, it has another opportunity to work with public-safety entities including the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) and APCO as well as the FCC. This week, the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) (a rebirth of the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), which drove efforts for FirstNet approval) shows that the public-safety community is once again united, for the most part, in what public-safety agencies want and need, especially in the way of additional broadband capabilities.

Actions taken by the FCC so far are to be commended and show an understanding of how much work lies ahead for the public-safety community and the organizations and vendors that support it.

One final note: As many of you know, we are approaching fire and hurricane seasons once again. According to predictions, this year’s incidents could equal or surpass the many incurred last year.

It is encouraging that the federal government understands what may be coming and is planning for the resources and funding that could be needed in the coming months.

Until next week…

Andrew Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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