At a White House event on Friday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced that the FCC is auctioning off more 5G spectrum than ever. Specifically, high-band airwaves that would technically open the doors to much faster speeds than those achievable under 4G currently. This is one part of the FCC’s multi-pronged approach to 5G. Under Chairman Pai, the FCC is pursuing a comprehensive strategy to Facilitate America's Superiority in 5G Technology (the 5G FAST Plan). The Chairman's strategy includes three key components: (1) pushing more spectrum into the marketplace; (2) updating infrastructure policy; and (3) modernizing outdated regulations. Significantly, as part of this strategy, the FCC has announced a spectrum auction and a $20.4 billion rural broadband fund to bolster connectivity across the US. The auction is scheduled to start December 10th, with 3,400 megahertz in three different spectrum bands to be auctioned. While the spectrum auctions are great news for the deployment of 5G, there are a few issues still to be resolved, mainly the use of mid-bands for 5G and the impact of 5G deployment on rural areas.
Advocates have been urging the FCC to open mid-band airwaves that can project signals over greater distances, which should bolster connectivity in rural areas. According to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, nationally, 39% of rural Americans lack access to broadband, compared with just 4% of urban Americans. Rural incomes often fall below the national average, so, even when broadband is made available in rural communities, there may not be enough subscribers who can afford to pay the monthly rates necessary for deployment. The problem is, while millimeter-wave bands are generally clear, mid-bands have existing users, including satellite companies and the US Navy. Other countries, including most of Europe, are focused on mid-band 5G in the 3.5GHz band and while America ranks strongly in the majority of 5G-readiness metrics, including leading the world in high-band spectrum availability, China and many other countries are ahead in making critical mid-spectrum available for 5G and Chinese wireless operators are conducting hundreds of large-scale 5G trials across the country, thanks to a significant wireless infrastructure advantage.
Fortunately, this is not a partisan issue. Commissioner Rosenworcel voted to approve the high band rules but cautioned that the U.S. is far behind worldwide counterparts on getting midband spectrum to market. She also suggests scheduling an auction in the 3.5 GHz band as a starting point. “We are relying on high-band spectrum for which the network densification costs are exceptionally high and unlikely to be economically viable in vast swaths of this country,” she said. “If we truly want to deploy 5G service to everyone, everywhere, we are going to have to pivot to mid-band, and the time to do it is now.”
LGBT Tech has spoken in the past about the importance of launching newer technologies to close the digital divide and specifically how 5G has the potential to transform technological access to unserved and underserved communities such as the LGBTQ community by helping to close the digital divide and allow individuals to access basic yet essential services that can make a tremendous impact. Most importantly to our community, the auction could also help close the digital divide, providing new connections to those who need them most including those LGBTQ communities residing in woefully underserved rural areas. With its latest measure, the agency is repurposing funds from other programs to create the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. It seeks to connect up to four million rural homes and businesses to high-speed internet networks. The fund will provide $20.4 billion in subsidies over 10 years to companies through an auction process to build out broadband infrastructure in rural areas. That is significant since minority communities like the LGBTQ community cannot afford to fall behind in the technology race when adequate access to reliable fast technology can impact everything from healthcare, education, economic opportunities or finding a safe community online and could make a huge difference between success and failure in everyday life. 5G has enormous potential to be a powerful tool to eradicate the digital divide as it has the potential to provide faster communications and increase response times for underserved and unserved communities.
For these reasons, LGBT Tech has consistently supported the FCC efforts to bring 5G technology to the masses as quickly as possible. The internet has been a lifeline for LGBT people in smaller towns and remote communities, in particular. Bridging the digital divide requires a multi-pronged approach and LGBT Tech urges the FCC to continue its work removing barriers to deployment that will ensure that these much-needed new technologies reach those that need it the most as quickly as possible including mid band auctions and continued focus on underserved and rural communities.