Broadband Digital Divide Legislation

WIA CEO Adelstein Urges Congress to Ensure Broadband Legislation is Technology Neutral

Congress and the Biden administration are currently deliberating on an historic and comprehensive infrastructure plan that could invest an unprecedented $100 billion in broadband deployment. WIA and its members share the goal of bridging the digital divide and commend Congress and the White House for their focus on bringing connectivity to all communities.  

WIA embraces key principles it is using in its advocacy on behalf of the wireless infrastructure industry. As Congress drafts an infrastructure bill, it should ensure that funds can be used for operational expenses, such as leases, as well as capital expenses; infrastructure can be deployed expeditiously; and recipients are held accountable for outcomes. It should be truly technology neutral with the end in mind: building infrastructure with the most cost-efficient means to get the most bandwidth to the most consumers. 

Most fundamentally, it needs to include mobile 5G broadband. Otherwise, Congress could inadvertently grow a rural mobility digital divide in which many rural residents would be limited to accessing the internet through a wired connection in the home or farmhouse. All broadband technologies, including wireless, are needed to ensure that rural communities have robust connectivity.  Defining broadband as a connection offering symmetric 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload bandwidth (100/100) is not technology neutral as it excludes 5G mobile service from being delivered to rural consumers. With current technology, only fiber to the premise supports 100 Mbps uploads speeds, which few consumers ever use or need given current applications. But it does preclude mobility, which nearly every rural consumer wants and needs, given the long distances they must traverse.  

Funding fiber-only initiatives will grow a rural mobility digital divide, depriving rural Americans of mobile broadband.  

precision agricultureRural Americans need mobile broadband access as they travel larger distances. Rural residents should not have to return home or to their farmhouse when they need a high-speed connection. Many applications such as precision agriculture require wireless broadband since fiber leaves farm fields unserved. Wireless can reach across distant residences and rugged terrain where fiber trenching is prohibitive. 

Wireless connectivity is critical for public safety and public health. In many rural areas, the closest hospital is an hour or more away. Wireless broadband can turn an ambulance into a mobile emergency room during that “golden hour,” saving lives and preventing disabilities. First responders rely on wireless as they rush to the front lines for fires, crime scenes, and disasters and need it on site to protect themselves and the public. 

Fiber-only options require rural consumers to purchase costly new wireline connections 

One in five rural Americans have cut the cord, relying on their wireless devices for broadband, and would benefit from an upgrade to 5G to support their choice. Millions of rural Americans would need to spend another $75 a month or more for a wireline connection that they already decided they do not want or can’t afford. For those who can’t afford it, large ongoing federal subsidies would be required, or low-income consumers would go without broadband connectivity. 

Technological neutrality provides consumers with mobility and the most megabits for the taxpayer dollar.  

The wireless industry is committed to closing the digital divide and has an indispensable role to play.  Fiber is critical, yet is simply one of many tools for closing the digital divide. Technologicalneutrality would reward consumers the most megabits for the fewest taxpayer dollars and offer mobility as a bonus. The last mile – or last 10 miles in some cases in rural America – is most costly to trench with fiber, when simply connecting fiber to a tower for 5G can cover many premises for a fraction of the cost. To provide connectivity to all communities, every broadband technology can contribute based on a community’s specific needs.  

Congress and the Biden administration should fund the most effective means to expand broadband access. 

Wireless networks are upgraded every 10 years. 5G is the most readily software-upgradeable generation of wireless. Once deployed, it is easier to upgrade to 6G. Policymakers should promote the most bandwidth via the most efficient means, providing flexibility to expert funding agencies to design effective funding mechanisms that are customizable to different communities and not one-size-fits all. Symmetrical speeds are unnecessary for most consumers. Video streaming makes up about 60 percent of all internet traffic, and it is a primarily downstream (not upstream) experience. All the most used applications, such as two-way video conference applications like Zoom, do not need symmetrical speeds. Networks are optimized based on consumer use patterns and 100/100 does not ensure that everyone can get the same access.   

Winning the Race to 5G is critical to U.S. competition with China. 

The U.S. needs to respond to China’s plans to dominate wireless and to win the race to 5G technology. The Biden administration has taken action to confront China and needs to continue the focus on 5G. A Boston Consulting Group study shows that 5G will create 4.5 million new jobs and $1.5 trillion in economic growth more jobs than the entire American Jobs Plan (which does not mention 5G). Those jobs will be created overseas in places like China if the U.S. does not deploy 5G at home first, as it did with 4G. 

5G is essential to the success of the American Jobs Plan 

All the major infrastructure sectors proposed for funding under the American Jobs Plan will rely on mobile 5G networks. Smart transportation, such as self-driving and electric vehicles, rely on advanced mobile networks. 5G networks will increase manufacturing efficiency and sustainability goals. 5G can enable more efficient compressors that waste less energy, increase boiler efficiency to reduce air waste energy, and improve motor voltage imbalances to reduce energy consumption. Also, 5G mobile edge computing will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in numerous ways and it can make smarter electric grids more efficient and resilient.   

The wireless infrastructure industry is committed to making nextgeneration communications technology available to more Americans than ever before. The importance of broadband is dramatically underscored by the increased reliance on broadband during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. There is an even deeper recognition of how essential reliable wireless connectivity is to every household and to every industry. 

The proposals under consideration in Congress and at the White House have laudable goals we share, and I have fought for my entire career. Every community, regardless of size, location, or geography deserves broadband service. Rural access continues to be a challenge. Congress has an extraordinary opportunity to ensure connectivity to all communities. It will take continued, dedicated efforts by both the wireless industry and the federal government for the U.S. to ensure that all communities are able to reap the benefits of robust wireless services. WIA and its members stand ready to deliver. 

Jonathan S. Adelstein is the President & CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA). WIA represents nearly 200 companies devoted to building wireless broadband facilities that connect every corner of America. WIA is the principal organization representing the companies that build, design, own and manage telecommunications facilities throughout the world. Its members include carriers, infrastructure providers and professional services firms, with a combined market cap of over $400 billion. Mr. Adelstein served as Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 2002 to 2009, for which he was twice nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. At the FCC he achieved bipartisan progress on issues including broadband expansion, widening access to the Internet and media diversity.