Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai described the current federal support for infrastructure builds as ‘unprecedented,’ during a panel at Connect (X) in Orlando. The massive infrastructure bill awaiting action in the House of Representatives includes $65 billion for broadband projects and encapsulates widespread and bipartisan support for advancing connectivity across the country.
The panel, “Federal Funding Impacts on Wireless Infrastructure Investing,” was moderated by Jennifer Fritzsche, managing director of Greenhill & Co., and included commentary from Pai, who is now a partner at private-equity firm Searchlight Capital Partners, and Dr. Ronald Johnson, chairman of the board of directors of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, who works with WIA on diversity and inclusion efforts. Fritzsche and the panelists explored a variety of topics, from the interplay of the cable and wireless industries to the role of low-earth-orbit satellite technology in future wireless networks. But their primary focus was on the major regulatory trends that are shaping network buildouts and how those are impacting infrastructure investments. Those trends include:
The country continues to watch the U.S. House of Representatives for action on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed the Senate in August and includes funding eligibility for wireless thanks to the efforts of WIA. The infrastructure bill has been tied to the broader reconciliation package and the debt ceiling measure in the House, which has made its progress through the House more challenging, but with bipartisan support for the bill coupled with extensive broadband needs throughout the country, the infrastructure bill has a decent chance of passing, said Pai. The bigger question is when.
“I’m just a spectator like everybody else trying to read these various tea leaves that seem to be rearranging themselves by the minute,” said Pai.
Pai said he expects this and similar legislation to spur network development in parts of the country and for projects that might not previously have had a sufficient business case for execution, both fixed and wireless. “Even if the infrastructure bill were not to pass at all, I can tell you that both through the CARES Act, and through the American Rescue Plan Act, we are seeing unprecedented funding flowing through state capitals,” said Pai.
Johnson said legislation also is helping organizations like WIA and its Telecommunications Education Center and Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program engage with more employers and with people of all ages who have an interest in the industry with training opportunities that both expand career opportunities for employees and help the industry meet its rapidly increasing need for qualified workers to build 5G networks.
Johnson pointed to the need for trained workers to keep up with demand for infrastructure buildouts, including small cells. WIA recently achieved certification of its small cell technician occupation from the Department of Labor.
“I think that’s tremendously important because there is a paucity of folks in that space who have the experience and technical know-how to competently bill these small cell sites and roll this this product out,” said Johnson. “It’s one thing to have these great rollout programs, but not to have sufficient manpower, woman power, person power to build out these systems is incredibly important and could be an impediment to rolling out these programs. There is a workforce element of this that we’re very concerned about, and we’re working to improve it as we speak.”
Pai noted that conversations around the need for workforce development in the wireless industry is important to elevate the issue to the awareness of legislators and secure funding for training and apprenticeships in broadband bills.
In order for infrastructure builds to move forward efficiently, red tape must not get in the way. Reflecting on his time at the FCC, Pai said it was a momentous four years with respect to wireless infrastructure reforms, many of which have been approved by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Pai quipped that he sometimes re-reads the court decision just to remind himself how much the commission got right during his time there.
Pai noted reforms that cut red tape dramatically increased the number of sites that were able to be built between 2017 and 2021. However, he said there is still a little bit of meat on the bone with respect to reforms that could help the wireless infrastructure industry, including objective aesthetic tests for localities to approve or disapprove siting applications, and additional work that could be done on federal lands, he said. In addition, the possibility of the FCC gaining jurisdiction over utility poles owned by municipalities and railroads, a measure that would have to come from Congress, could further streamline buildouts.
“You would see a coherent framework applicable to every pole in the country,” said Pai, who noted such a framework could spur cooperation among tower companies, utilities and other pole owners. “That could rapidly speed deployment because then you wouldn’t have to guess about the regulatory treatment of a pole attachment based on the classification of the owner, you’d simply have a set of rules that apply to every pole owner.”
Spectrum will also play a key role in wireless buildouts. Auction 110, which began in early October, will put 100 megahertz of 3.45 GHz spectrum into the market. The auction was nearing $22 billion in bids as of the end of October. Will there be more spectrum to come?
“In this I draw inspiration from one of my favorite telecom prognosticators,” said Pai. “I’m speaking, of course, of Yoda, who in the Empire Strikes Back tells Luke, ‘Very difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.’ That’s sort of like where we are in spectrum because we’ve now had an unprecedented series of spectrum auctions.”
Pai reflected upon all of the spectrum freed up during his tenure, including millimeter wave, Citizens Broadband Radio Service, the C-band and unlicensed bands including 5.6 GHz, the 6 GHz band and the L-band.
“I’m not sure what spectrum assets are out there that the FCC intends to look at or auction,” said Pai. “But I’m really proud of the work that the FCC staff did over the last four years. Those of you who are in the back might not be able to tell, but I have a substantially greater amounts of gray hair now than I did when I started the job because spectrum work is really, really hard.”
Asked about what the future holds for the wireless infrastructure industry, Johnson pointed to a greater need to partner with community anchor institutions to expand broadband networks across the country. He noted that parts of the American Rescue Plan, which provides $10 billion for payments to eligible governments to carry out critical capital projects that directly enable work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options, in response to the public health emergency, link funding to support of community anchor institutions.
Pai said he puzzles about the role video will have on the industry and guessed how people consume video and other high bandwidth entertainment such as gaming will be transformative. “That’s going to drive a lot of where the industry goes, and obviously part of that is wireless,” said Pai. I think it is going to be a fundamental driver of a lot of investment decisions by companies and by investors in the future.”