The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our approach to many aspects of our day to day lives. A recent hearing led by Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) in the Senate Commerce Committee highlighted the critical role of broadband during the pandemic as much work, education, health, and entertainment has moved online. Even hearings can be totally online. Broadband has long enabled the streaming of Congressional hearings for the public, but now members and witnesses don’t have to be physically present as they can attend remotely.
Nationally, network traffic is up almost by half as people use broadband connections for telework, telemedicine, education, news, and keeping in touch with families and friends. Additionally, online platforms have experienced record usage and signups, and millions of Americans have taken advantage of the Keep America Connected pledge, a pledge made by nearly 800 companies and associations to keep people connected when they need it most. Moreover, the workers of broadband providers have been the front lines to enhance connectivity, including tower technicians, engineers, and call center employees, many grappling with shortage of personal protective equipment.
To further help Americans adjust to this new normal, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) proposed the 5G Fund for Rural America, which would use multi-round reverse auctions to distribute up to $9 billion over 10 years for 5G broadband service to rural areas. Additionally, as part of a massive relief program, the (CARES) Act provided $200 million of funding to the FCC for telehealth and a whopping $13 billion to the Department of Education for distance learning. During the Senate hearing, senators reviewed the FCC’s latest Broadband Deployment report, which notes the narrowest digital divide yet. The report showed that more than 85 percent of Americans have a fixed terrestrial broadband service at 250/25 Mbps, a 47 percent increase since 2017, and many of the biggest gains were in rural areas.
The Missed Mid-Band Opportunity for 5G
While we have made progress towards eliminating the digital divide, there are still areas of the country that struggle to get connected. These locations in America can be difficult and expensive to reach by traditional wireline technologies, but that cannot be an excuse not to serve the area, or to engage in massive subsidy schemes. The best, quickest, and most cost-effective way to serve rural areas is through wireless technologies, which has now turned to the deployment of 5G.
This problem could have been solved by the market years ago, but entrenched interests, wanting to delay 5G to protect their revenue, succeeded to slow its rollout. Many wireless providers still lack the mid-band spectrum needed to launch their 5G services in these rural areas. The lack of a succinct plan to allocate this spectrum to these providers has delayed the rollout of their 5G services. Satellite providers were ready to sell their prime mid-band spectrum in 2018 through a private sale, a common secondary market transaction. Had they been allowed, the spectrum could have been enabled today, likely in time for the pandemic.
Barring more political interference, the U.S. plans to auction 280 MHz in December. Intelsat and SES have already started to clearing process. Meanwhile China has allocated 700 MHz of mid-band spectrum for 5G; Japan, 1,000 MHz. Many other countries around the world have allocated large swaths of mid-band spectrum for 5G deployment, and the U.S. is falling behind. Lack of spectrum for 5G is not only a problem for the under-served, it’s a serious vulnerability for security, a point reiterated by Mike Rogers, former Chair of the House Intelligence Committee and China hawk. This spectrum auction represents essentially the last bit of the mid-band frontier not claimed by federal users like Department of Defense. If the auction is delayed or deterred, the U.S. is in trouble.
Ensuring Continued Investment
The Senate hearing’s participants reiterated the need for a regulatory framework that fosters private investment and promotes broadband deployment. Wireless providers in the U.S. are ready and eager to deploy their new 5G services across the country, especially in areas where the digital divide is prominent, but in order to do so, they need mid-band spectrum. The U.S. is fortunate for its bipartisan approach to solving the digital divide issue, but other countries are not so lucky.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission asked Google and Netflix to throttle their videos so they wouldn’t overwhelm European networks, a situation that has never plagued the U.S. Europe, once the world’s leader in telecommunications, now lags in broadband technology, investment, and next generation deployment, due in part to the government’s heavy regulatory hand. Congress can achieve both goals of investment and universal connectivity by fast-tracking spectrum auctions and fostering a regulatory environment that allows wireless companies to quickly deploy 5G.