FCC chairman outlines steps to encourage mobile broadband deployment

From revised net neutrality rules to opening up more spectrum, Chairman Ajit Pai explains how he sees government greasing the wheels for the wireless industry.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Addressing an audience of wireless industry leaders hungry to capture the revenue potential of 5G networks, US Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday laid out the ways he thinks government can grease the wheels for greater mobile broadband deployment, including a revised policy on net neutrality.

"Our goals are clear," Pai said in a keynote address at the Global World Congress (GWC) Americas conference in San Francisco, "to make sure the U.S. continues to lead in 5G and to enable wireless consumers to benefit from these technologies sooner rather than later."

Private network investment is "by far more substantial and important" than government funding when it comes to expand broadband coverage, Pai said.

The FCC's "Restoring Internet Freedom" proposal, which would gut existing net neutrality rules, would "encourage greater deployment and investment and bring digital opportunity to more Americans," the chairman said.

The CTIA, one of the sponsors of the conference, has officially weighed in, suggesting the current rules, in place since 2015, hinder network investment. At the same, the GSMA -- the CTIA's global counterpart and its joint conference host -- released new research on Tuesday showing a thriving mobile industry. US mobile operators invested more than $220 billion in both spectrum and network equipment from 2010 to 2016, and capex will be $125 billion between 2017 and 2020, the report says.

The report outlines the industry's continued North American investments, noting operators have "invested heavily in acquiring mobile spectrum, particularly over the last three years." It also cites "increased investment in fibre networks" in North America, such as Verizon recent acquisitions of XO Communications' fiber business in 2016 and its acquisition of fiber infrastructure in Chicago from WideOpenWest.

North America has led the world in 4G deployments, the report shows, and should lead the world in 5G deployment in the coming years.

Still, Pai said, "Too often, unnecessary rules make it more expensive to construct these networks than it needs to be."

In addition to reviewing net neutrality rules, Pai said noted that the FCC is examining ways to streamline state, local, and Tribal rules that affect infrastructure deployment. The agency is also exploring pole attachment reforms to make it easier for broadband providers to attach the wires and wireless equipment necessary for next-generation networks.

The federal government is also directly funding efforts to bridge the mobile digital divide with in an initiative called Mobility Fund Phase II. The fund is reallocating $4.5 billion in previously-approved funding to bring 4G LTE service to rural Americans over the course of 10 years. The agency is using a competitive reverse auction to distribute the funds to private providers.

While the marketplace overall is competitive, "wireless service in rural areas still lags the national averages," Pai said, noting that 55 percent of rural Americans have access to just four LTE providers. About 3 percent of US road miles and 20 percent of square miles have no coverage at all.

Pai also outlined the ways the FCC is opening up low, mid and high-band spectrum for licensed and unlicensed use. By the end of the year, he said he intends to present to the full FCC an order that would make available more high-band spectrum for commercial use.

Industry leaders on Tuesday made the case for industry-friendly regulations, citing the wireless sector's contribution to the economy. The US created 2 million jobs last year, while 5G alone will create 3 million, said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Baker.

"Our industry's great American success story is ready for its biggest chapter yet," she said.

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