The FCC on Friday received a wave of largely positive press for a new broadband proposal the government claims will revolutionize telecom markets and help drive fiber and fifth-generation (5G) wireless to rural America. But industry watchers say the agency’s proposal is light on actual details, and much of the plan isn’t actually new.
In an afternoon press conference flanked by cellular industry workers clad in cowboy hats and cellular tower climbing gear, the Trump administration celebrated the FCC’s new plan, proclaiming it would put the United States on track to win the “race to 5G.”
“It’s all about 5G,” President Trump said. “We’re at 4G and everybody was saying we have to get 4G. And then they said before that we have to get 3G. And now we have to get 5G and 5G is a big deal.”
In a fact sheet circulated among reporters Friday morning, the FCC stated a cornerstone of the FCC’s plan includes an already-announced December auction of 3,400 megahertz of millimeter wave spectrum. Such spectrum has the potential to offer faster speeds, but suffers from distance and signal penetration issues that limit its utility in more rural markets.
Another key part of the plan, the FCC said, involved efforts to “modernize outdated regulations,” most recently exemplified by the agency’s unpopular repeal of net neutrality, or the elimination of consumer broadband privacy protections.
The FCC said it will also be launching a new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund it promised would help connect up to four million rural homes and small businesses to high-speed broadband networks over the next decade. Roughly 20 million Americans lack access to speeds of 25 Mbps, the agency’s minimum threshold for broadband.
Granted the funding isn’t actually “new,” and it comes on the heels of numerous FCC attacks on programs that are supposed to help bring affordable connectivity to rural America.
In a conference call with reporters Friday morning, FCC head Ajit Pai said the agency would pay for the plan by “repurposing” some existing funds provided by the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF), already designed to help subsidize broadband availability in underserved areas. Users already pay into the program via fees imposed on their phone bills.
The fund would be “the FCC’s single biggest step yet to close the digital divide,” the agency said.
Some industry watchers are skeptical given the agency has spent much of the last few years chipping away at rural and tribal broadband programs, slowly but steadily eliminating numerous consumer protections, and actively trying to obscure the broadband industry’s biggest and most obvious problem: a lack of serious competition.
Harold Feld, Senior VP of consumer group Public Knowledge, told Motherboard in an email that the FCC’s “new” plan doesn’t appear to offer much that’s actually new, and repurposing USF funds as proposed could prove legally problematic.
“It is hard to see how you can do this given that broadband is a Title I information service and USF is restricted to Title II telecommunications,” Feld said, referring to the FCC’s decision to roll back Title II classification of ISPs with its net neutrality repeal.
Feld said the FCC could find the money from its existing taxpayer-backed Connect America Fund, but that would largely be more of a new coat of paint than an entirely new program.
“This is really just like slapping "new and Improved!” on the same package,” Feld said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said that while it supported the idea of broader broadband availability, it had some skepticism regarding FCC motivation and implementation, and told Motherboard it was concerned the program could just wind up padding monopoly revenues instead of building better, more open broadband networks.
“We have very little detail here though but it looks like the FCC is suggesting the government should spend $20 billion to fund gigabit fiber monopolies for rural Americans. That would be a gigantic mistake,” EFF lawyer Ernesto Falcon told Motherboard in an email.
“Rather, if the government is going to invest a huge amount of money into connecting rural Americans, it should approach it as an open access infrastructure rather than subsidizing a single ISP's profits,” Falcon said. “That way, rural markets that are only going to be able to sustain one network can have the benefits of competition and all of the various ISPs that serve rural markets can mutually benefit.”
Skepticism of the FCC extended to Pai’s fellow Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who also raised an eyebrow at the Pai FCC’s 5G proposals, which have also included blacklisting Chinese network hardware manufacturers based on thus-far publicly unsubstantiated spying allegations.
“So far, this Administration’s interventions on 5G have done more harm than good,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “From imposing tariffs on 5G equipment to alienating allies on 5G security to falling behind the rest of the world on critical mid-band spectrum, the White House has yet to offer a workable plan for US leadership.”
As always the devil will be in the details, and given the Pai FCC’s obvious fealty to the industry’s biggest players, critics say the agency hasn’t yet earned the benefit of the doubt, especially given the empty lip service routinely paid to rural broadband by US politicians.