Official Washington is generally consumed with all things impeachment — especially the Senate. Nevertheless, other business does go on. So while it surprised many, Senate Commerce Committee Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss) and Ranking Member Mariah Cantwell (D-WA) scheduled a hearing this morning (Wed. 1/22) on “The 5G Workforce and Other Obstacles to Broadband Deployment.” (Warning! The video of the hearing doesn’t actually begin until about 15 minutes have passed after you hit “play.” Hopefully this will be corrected in the future.) And, in what will no doubt be to the surprise of many, it was actually a pretty good hearing.
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
“The 5G Workforce and Obstacles to Deployment”
Oral Statement of
Harold Feld, Senior V.P. Public Knowledge
Chairman Wicker, Ranking member Cantwell, thank you for inviting me to testify on this important issue.
This is our fourth transition from one mobile wireless architecture to another – fifth if you include the analog sunset in 2008. Each transition has presented its own challenges. Each transition has also been accompanied by stakeholders clamoring for changes to give themselves and their specific business models advantages. This frequently takes the form of dire warnings that unless the FCC or Congress acts immediately to satisfy these industry demands, we will fall behind rival countries and therefore suffer some unspecified but dreadful consequence.
Despite these warnings, our nearly 30-year streak as global leader in wireless technology remains intact. American companies such as Qualcomm, Apple and Google continue to lead in wireless equipment and wireless operating systems. Why? In no small part because Congress has consistently resisted the hype from the wireless industry and maintained a steady, balanced course on policy. When the FCC has gotten caught up in the wireless-industry generated buzz about the “digital transition” or the “spectrum crunch” or whatever catchy name is being used to create an artificial crisis, Congress has acted to rein in the headlong rush urged by special interests.
To be clear, “balance” does not mean inaction or complacency. But it does mean that Congress must look past the hype to address the real underlying issues. For example, in 2005, Congress acted to strike a balance between broadcasters, the wireless industry and public safety to move the digital transition forward. In 2012, Congress acted to resolve outstanding issues and create the first ever incentive auction. In each case, Congress moved with deliberation to address genuine obstacles to progress, while ignoring the self-serving hype of industry stakeholders.
If we had no mid-band spectrum slated for auction, and no spectrum ready to open for WiFi 6, we would be in danger of falling behind in 5G deployment and adoption. But this is not the case. The FCC has two mid-band auctions scheduled for the near future, the 3.5 GHz CBRS auction and the 2.5 GHz BRS auction. These, combined with existing mid-band spectrum already held by the major wireless carriers, provide sufficient spectrum to begin a successful transition. Even if the FCC wanted to schedule substantial auctions immediately after the current scheduled auctions, it would take time for wireless carriers to overcome the “capital depletion” from two successive auctions and existing deployment plans. Taking the time to get it right on issues such as C-Band is much more important than whether the auction takes place in 6 months, 12 months or 18 months.
By contrast, no new spectrum suitable for WiFi 6 is available, or even on the table, other than the proposed 5.9 GHz and 6 GHz band. Without swift action by the FCC to open these bands to sharing on a non-interfering basis, WiFi 6 deployment – a critical component of a successful 5G strategy – will be severely stunted.
Nowhere is balance more necessary and appropriate than in the ability of local governments to protect local safety and quality of life. Unlike carriers, local officials are responsible to their voters and must address their concerns about safety, aesthetics, disruption of local traffic, and equitable deployment. No one doubts that these communities want to see new networks with new capabilities deployed. But localities have other concerns as well, and federal policy should respect those concerns. The Communications Act explicitly preserves zoning authority to local authorities for this very reason. Congress should reverse the FCC’s preemption of local authority to protect local concerns, and restore the appropriate balance between carriers and communities.
Just to be clear, there is a huge difference between local governments negotiating policy concerns and private companies demanding outrageous fees, such as the railroad crossing fees mentioned in Ms. Younger’s testimony. Where private sector companies use their market power to extort monopoly rents, Congress should do as it did with pole attachments and step in to level the playing field.
Finally, workforce shortages are a serious concern. But Congress must make sure that workers are not exploited in the name of “winning the race to 5G.” Congress and regulators must remain vigilant to prevent any shortcuts with regard to safety. Additionally, Congress should do its best to ensure that the good jobs created during the current tower building boom do not simply disappear when the demand returns to normal. Thoughtfully designed job training programs, especially those that promote on-the-job learning, can simultaneously meet demand and bring good paying jobs to rural and urban communities struggling with poverty and high unemployment.
To conclude, I observe that many of the members of this Committee have seen wireless transitions before. You know better than most how challenging it can be to separate hype from real needs requiring Congressional action. In considering what steps to take, Congress should continue to follow the path of success: a healthy skepticism about urgency and doomsday predictions combined with a balanced policy toward all stakeholders.