Big policy decisions loom over future of wireless industry

Big Policy Decisions Loom Over the Future of America’s Wireless Networks

By Patrick Halley, President and CEO, WIA

Access to broadband – fixed and mobile – is table stakes for participation in today’s Internet-driven economy. Hence the billions of dollars coming out of Washington to connect every unserved home in America. That’s good news for consumers who remain on the other side of the digital divide.

Beyond a fixed connection to the home (which itself is increasingly provided over a wireless link), American consumers and businesses (from the urban factory to the rural farm) are increasingly relying on access to high-speed wireless connectivity. And the wireless industry is meeting this demand head on, delivering the coverage and speeds consumers and businesses need.

But, with more devices coming online and skyrocketing consumer mobile data usage set to triple by 2028, important policy decisions loom over the future success of America’s wireless industry.

First the good news. Today, 99% of Americans have access to three or more 4G providers and 325 million Americans are already connected to 5G. Consumers are now experiencing 130 megabits per second on average, and in some cases 1 to 2 Gigabits per second over a mobile broadband connection. To put this in perspective, you can drive down the street with connectivity 3x the average fixed home broadband speed from just a few years ago!

Incredible progress, but getting here was no miracle. It was made possible by substantial investment ($675 billion over the lifetime of the industry) in the infrastructure and spectrum necessary to enable today’s connectivity – progress that was powered by critical policies that facilitated investment and deployment.

Forward-looking policy choices that included:

  • A conscious decision to make available a significant amount of licensed spectrum for commercial use – low-band, high-band and the critical mid-bands in between.
  • Congress enacting, and the FCC implementing, crucial permitting processes. Prioritizing shared infrastructure accelerated the ability of network builders to deploy, resulting in a 5G rollout twice as fast as the 4G revolution that proceeded it.
  • A bipartisan emphasis on a light-touch regulatory structure which created a business environment that incentivized network innovation and deployment.

Because of these decisions, the U.S. has been the unquestioned global leader in wireless. But continuing to have the best wireless networks in the world is not guaranteed. Our future success will require intentional short and long-term policy decisions – including several issues being debated right now in Washington – to promote growth and innovation.   

  • First: We need a predictable spectrum pipeline.  Successfully meeting projected demands for mobile data requires the identification today of the specific spectrum bands that will be available for licensed commercial use over the next 5-10 years. The good news is that multiple spectrum bands have already been identified as viable candidates. The forthcoming Biden Administration’s National Spectrum Strategy must be ambitious in laying out a path forward to meet the needs of American consumers and businesses over the medium and long term. And Congress must act now to restore the FCC’s spectrum auction authority.
  • Second: The U.S. needs predictable, proportionate and transparent permitting policies.  We made a lot of progress on permitting in the last decade, but our national connectivity needs mean that we must continue to seek appropriate ways to streamline our processes. Congress, the FCC and the Department of Commerce have all demonstrated leadership on this issue, but much of this comes down to local implementation. Thus, while continuing to respect the role of local governments, it is critical that federal reforms over the past decade be maintained and strengthened and for newly empowered state broadband offices to continue the trend.  
  • Third:  We must maintain a pro-investment regulatory structure.  There is no “net neutrality” crisis in America and the FCC has acknowledged there is no evidence of internet service providers engaging in discriminatory deployment practices. Yet, under the theory of preventing hypothetical harms that may emerge, the FCC is proposing to adopt sweeping new rules to prevent “digital discrimination” and regulate mobile broadband companies under a 1934 telephone era statute. If access to broadband is so essential (it is), then we should be doubling down on the bipartisan light-touch regulatory approach that made us the global leader in wireless. We should not turn back the clock to the 20th Century and empower government to micromanage and second guess the private sector deployment strategies of companies in the broadband ecosystem. There is only one result of this kind of government overreach: unpredictability, chilled investment, and less deployment. The FCC needs to hit the brakes.  

All of this may seem like wonky policy stuff that only the CEO of a wireless trade association would care about. Maybe, but the reality is that our international rivals, particularly China, are pushing hard to dethrone the U.S. as the global leader in wireless. We simply can’t let that happen. And whether the average consumer knows it or not, these are the issues that impact the availability and quality of the wireless networks they will rely on in the future. If we get these issues right, consumers and businesses will have more competitive choices, more high paying jobs will be created, our economy will grow, and the U.S. will continue to lead the world in wireless innovation.