Experts, Policy Makers Consider National Broadband Infrastructure

In addition to making digital connectivity part of the conversation, policy makers, regulators and industry representatives have to create a long-term plan on how to modernize the nation’s communications systems.

by Sarah Plummer, The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va. / February 3, 2017
Experts applaud New York's new broadband expansion plan. Shutterstock
Experts applaud New York's new broadband expansion plan.Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Telecommunication industry experts weighed in on making broadband a priority of national infrastructure packages Wednesday at a bicameral, bipartisan Broadband Caucus in Washington, D.C.

With President Donald Trump having proposed a trillion-dollar infrastructure package, US Telecom President and CEO Jonathan Spalter said broadband has to be considered a crucial part of the country’s infrastructure alongside brick and mortar projects.

In addition to making digital connectivity part of the conversation, policy makers, regulators and industry representatives have to create a long-term plan on how to modernize the nation’s communications systems. Updating the Communications Act for the first time in 20 years must also be considered, he said.

Panel experts discussed the necessity of both improving existing broadband as well as expanding broadband to rural areas.

Meredith Baker, president and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, lent some perspective to the swaths of underserved and unserved areas of the country.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states 99.7 percent of Americans have access to 4G network as compared to 99.5 percent that have access to indoor plumbing, she said.

“We actually have more people who have access to 4G networks than have access to indoor plumbing, but our job is not done,” said Baker. “In the last six months, from reporting from the FCC, we have reached 500,000 more Americans.”

An upgrade to existing networks — from 4G to 5G — could have a drastic impact, she said. The network would be 10 times faster and have 100 times more devices connected.

“It is going to change all of our lives,” she said. “It is going to change every part of our economy. It is going to be in communities in West Virginia, in Maine, in Nevada. It is going to be transformative.”

Service providers plan to invest $275 billion to the upgrade over the next 10 years, creating 3 million new jobs.

Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, compared today’s broadband service to electrical service in the 1930s when 30 to 40 percent of of Americans did not have electricity. Houses were too far apart to run electrical wires, he said.

Today, the same technological and economic hurdle exists for broadband, which is “needed for the vitality of the rural areas” and “essential to the economic development of our country,” he said.

Michael Powell, president and CEO of The Internet & Television Association, said U.S. policy has always had a commitment to rural America and universal service, but commitment alone has not achieved full coverage.

He noted that 97 percent of America’s landmass is rural with 18 percent of the population living in low density areas.

Networks hate low density areas because they have to look at how many people can be served per one mile of infrastructure, and what is the return on investment, he said.

“In short and in economic terms, these areas are essentially market failures. There is not a natural market dynamic for providing a supplier because the demand is not strong enough. Add to that, network building is breathtakingly expensive. Breathtakingly,” said Powell.

And that expense is a sunk cost — paid out long before the first dollar is paid back.

In addition to the cost of expanding, companies in the industry spend around $16 billion annually to maintain current infrastructure, he said.

Public policy will need to find more money or ways to offset expenses for private companies through grants, tax credits or other incentives, he said.

Spalter noted that using policy changes to create parity for private and public companies would give companies the green light to invest in expansion. Current rules grant privilege to some and disadvantage others, he said.

“There has to be synergy between private and public dollars,” he said.

Baker said policy makers on the national and local levels can think about ways to streamline the process of expansion. It takes 18 months for companies to go through zoning and permitting processes to put up a tower. Policy changes can speed that up, which would also reduce cost, she said.

She also noted that there is currently a spectrum auction underway, the process the federal government uses to sell the rights to transmit signals over specific bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. More spectrum will be needed in 10 years, and the process of accessing more takes a decade. That process should be facilitated now, she said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., suggested developing a best practices guide for states. All regulate broadband differently, but a guide for state legislatures would be beneficial.

She said she hopes “someday we could talk about, not just, ‘How do we get it to our areas?’, but ‘What are we going to do to enhance the value of what we have?’”

On Jan. 31, More than 70 members of the House and more than 40 from the Senate signed letters to President Donald Trump asking for broadband deployment to be considered as a crucial part of forthcoming infrastructure bills.

©2017 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.