Yesterday, the FCC began a process for authorizing automated frequency coordination (AFC) in the 6 GHz band. The agency’s first step involve issuing a public notice.
“Last year, after an exhaustive legal and technical analysis, the Commission unanimously took the unprecedented step of making 1200 megahertz in the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use,” said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. “Our decision has already sparked a wave of low-power products utilizing the band indoors, offering increased Wi-Fi speeds that benefit consumers and businesses that rely on unlicensed spectrum for their homes and operations. These developments are particularly important for our economic growth and to address the digital divide that continues for so many Americans.”
Referring to the 6 GHz AFC process, Starks said it would be another step toward unleashing the potential of the 6 GHz band, beginning the process of authorizing automated frequency control system operators to offer services to parties seeking to operate in certain portions of the 6 GHz band outdoors at standard power levels.
“Through such AFC systems, standard power unlicensed devices will be able to coexist in the 6 GHz band with incumbent fixed microwave links and radio astronomy observatories,” Starks said. “I look forward to reviewing the applications and continuing our progress in making unlicensed spectrum available on a non-interference basis.”
Louis Peraertz, vice president of policy for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), said that the public notice represents the next step in the process of authorizing AFC system operators for standard power communications in the band.
“As FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks’ statement points out, the Commission’s April 2020 6 GHz Order made important decisions that will spur our nation’s economic growth and bridge digital divides.,” he said. “Eight hundred and fifty megahertz of unlicensed spectrum is an unprecedented amount for standard power outdoor communications. It will be put to tremendous use, in particular helping WISPA members provide more capacity for their customers, as well as enabling them to connect more Americans in rural and exurban areas to broadband services.”
Shortages of fiber-optic cable, semiconductor chips and skilled labor threaten to hinder this year’s booming rollout of broadband and wireless networks — all while 5G infrastructure construction is thriving and the Biden administration is poised to allocate $65 billion for broadband deployment.
The most serious, longest-standing deficiencies are the chip shortage that affect the telecom supply chain and a scarcity of trained workers for building the new networks. Global semiconductor shortages have been disrupting plans for much of the tech industry and automakers. The broadband industry, in particular, is being slowed by the shortages in chips and other components — a trend that could further extend to wireless infrastructure builders.
Meanwhile, the recently realized fiber shortage is as seen as a shorter-term, but imminently more severe problem. AT&T had plans to wire 3 million homes this year, but last week said it would only be able to complete 2.5 million. The company warned that shortages are likely to affect other companies that purchase fiber. According to Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association, internet service providers are waiting as long as 71 weeks for new fiber to be delivered. Bruce Forey of Broadmax Group, a fiber broadband development consulting firm, said that semiconductor chips, electronic capacitors, resistors and even plastic polymers also are increasingly scarce.
The largest fiber buyer in the country, AT&T expects to catch up with its original fiber-construction estimates starting next year, largely because of the company’s “preferred place in the supply chain” and set prices. AT&T said it believes it will be able to reach its target customers of 30 million customer locations by 2025.
Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA), also is optimistic about the supply of fiber. “The majority of the fiber being deployed in the U.S. is made in the U.S.,” he said. “Corning, OFS and Prysmian all manufacture optical fiber in the United States and will have sufficient capacity to meet demand and these domestic suppliers are further expanding capacity.”
Bolton continued: “The $65 billion broadband infrastructure investment provides strong visibility to the long-term capex investment cycle that will enable our fiber manufacturers to increase capacity to meet demand. The infrastructure bill has passed the Senate and is working its way through the House. At best, this funding will begin flowing in 2023. The fiber industry will continue to ramp in 2021 and 2022 with the significant announced broadband investment from private capital, already appropriated federal funding (RDOF, Re-Connect, ARPA, etc.) and state funding (i.e., $6 billion California budget surplus).”
However, in the short term, smaller internet providers are also already feeling the pinch of the fiber shortage. The National Rural Broadband Association said that providers can’t get 30 percent to 40 percent of the needed equipment to install broadband — especially fiber. Meanwhile, the Rural Wireless Association is more concerned that a shortage of semiconductor chips and fiber-optic cable could have a big effect on the timing associated with its members’ ability to replace Huawei and ZTE gear in their networks, as mandated by the Secure Networks Act of 2019.
“The chip shortage is more challenging than the fiber supply given the number of industries competing for chips, such as the auto industry,” said FBA’s Bolton. “We believe that long lead times can be managed with long-range forecast visibility and strong supply chain management.”
A spokesperson for the Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPA) told eDigest, “Chip shortage has not been something I’m hearing about from our members, though equipment shortages generally, through tariff issues and COVID, have been a struggle for some.
“However,” the WISPA spokesperson continued, “The labor shortage is huge — finding, attracting and keeping good labor has always been difficult, especially for small companies operating in rural markets. The current labor crunch has only exacerbated that. WISPs are finding ways to get around it — through comprehensive benefits packages, signing bonuses, higher pay, training and apprenticeship programs, etc., but it will remain an ongoing challenge even after the current crunch subsides. Though Congress’ billions for new broadband deployment will bring new labor into the market, until that new supply occurs, there will be labor issues in the short term.”
As far as the fiber shortage is concerned, WISPA’s spokesperson also said the organization believes the shortage is temporary and the market will get what it needs. “We see delays now, even for AT&T,” he said. “For the small guy, I hear of up to a year or more to get ordered fiber delivered. Congress’ broadband deployment money will increase that wait until supply responds. But supply will eventually respond. The numbers are simply too big for this not to occur, notwithstanding the past experience of the dot-com bubble.”
As far as how the fiber shortage how might bolster wireless construction, the WISPA spokesperson said, “I think that companies are already seeing the advantage of FWA [fixed wireless access] in quickly, cost-effectively and robustly connecting consumers to the internet. The very largest companies see it as a viable tool to bring evolutionary broadband to their hungry customers. WISPs have known this for years. Sure, fiber is great; many WISPs are hybrid providers and have significant fiber assets in their networks. But the shortage did not bring the FWA model to the fore. It stands on its own as a tremendous, evolutionary solution to get people online.”
Meanwhile, Todd Schlekeway, president and CEO of NATE: the National Association of Tower Erectors, said, “There are a myriad of supply chain issues right now and it appears the fiber shortage is part of that issue. AT&T certainly called attention to that fact last week.”
Delivering the keynote address at the South Wireless Summit, held in Nashville on June 28, Schlekeway warned that wireless contracting was becoming untenable. Schlekeway said he believes that, although the shortage of skilled workers is a major problem, the largest problem for NATE members is downward pricing pressure from carriers and others at the top of the chain, which is making wireless contracting unprofitable. “Customers at the top of the chain have shifted all responsibility for the safety and vetting of contractors to third parties with an ever-rising bar,” he said.
“One remedy involves finding more skilled workers,” Schlekeway said at the summit. “U.S. operators want to expand their 5G networks, but a shortage of skilled tower workers — particularly workers demanding higher pay — could hinder that expansion.” Schlekeway said that NATE is working with technical colleges and community colleges to train people for these types of trades. But he noted that even the help of these institutions won’t solve the problem overnight.
Gary Bolton also sees the skilled worker shortage as his association’s largest challenge. “FBA is launching a nationwide Optical Technician training program nationwide to community colleges, high schools and with veterans,” he said. This training is recognized with the U.S. Dept. of Labor, with FBA as a national sponsor, and includes 144 hours of classroom and hands-on training and 2,000 hours of apprenticeship.”
Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.
Louis Peraertz, vice president of policy for WISPA, has endorsed the FCC’s proposed technical rule enabling widespread use of the 5.9 GHz band.
“Broad consensus exists among wireless internet service providers (WISPs) for adoption of the FCC’s proposed technical rules, enabling widespread outdoor unlicensed use of the 5.9 GHz band, says Peraertz.
He continued: “As the FCC’s 5.9 GHz STAs make abundantly clear, too, the demand is there for it to go into quick and innovative service, keeping American’s connected during the pandemic, and beyond. That use also shows it can occur without causing harmful interference to licensed operations.
“Prime mid-band spectrum is finite and too valuable for it to remain roadblocked by promises which have never gotten into first gear these past twenty years. We support the Commission’s proposals which would drive 45 megahertz of the band into higher use — Americans, especially those in rural and underserved areas of the country, would see immediate and lasting benefits should the FCC’s proposals move swiftly forward.”
As the Biden administration has combatted the COVID challenge through a data-driven approach, it must apply the same method toward bridging the digital divide, said Claude Aiken, president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), in an opinion piece published today in Morning Consult.
In a piece entitled “Using the White House’s Approach to COVID to Amplify Infrastructure Policy,” Aiken urges the administration and congressional lawmakers to follow a science and truth approach to broadband policy, which is inclusive and solutions-oriented. In doing so, it would ensure that infrastructure legislation now being contemplated in Congress could have a positive effect, resulting in more American jobs and better, more affordable connectivity for consumers.
“On his first full day in office, President Joe Biden signed the ‘Ensuring a Data-Driven Response to COVID-19 and Future High-Consequence Public Health Threats’ executive order,” Aiken’s opinion piece reads. “This was the first step toward fulfilling his campaign promise to lead with science and truth in his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as the president and congressional leaders attempt to navigate a multibillion-dollar infrastructure package through Congress, the same science and truth approach could help ensure that the American Jobs Plan does what it is intended to do.
“To end the COVID pandemic,” Aiken continued, “we need all vaccines in arms as fast as possible. Broadband is no different. All technologies need to be in play in closing the connectivity gap. Truly data-driven and inclusive approaches to legislative policy will include multiple technologies that are well-suited to deliver robust and affordable broadband to all Americans.”
Reference: Morning Consult’s website
U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today led a bipartisan group of senators in introducing legislation known as the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act of 2021. The bill sets aside 10 percent of the net proceeds from spectrum auctions to be deposited into an FCC-administered Rural Broadband Assessment and Deployment Fund, to be used for building broadband networks.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) joined Thune in introducing the legislation.
Under terms of the Act, the FCC must use the fund to establish one or more programs to address gaps in broadband internet access service coverage in high-cost rural areas. The federal agency also would be required to address insufficient funding of other programs that could adversely affect the sustainability of broadband services or comparability of rates supported by such programs. Further, the FCC must establish transparency and accountability requirements for addressing such coverage gaps and funding shortfalls, and it must report annually on the distribution of amounts from the fund.
NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, has its headquarters which is based in Thune’s home state. NATE’s president and CEO, Todd Schlekeway, said that NATE thanks the senators for their leadership in introducing the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act in the 117th Congress.
“NATE member companies are on the front lines of deployment, working on a daily basis to close the digital divide,” Schlekeway said. “The Association is proud to endorse this legislation that will ultimately provide an infusion of funds from proceeds generated from congressionally mandated spectrum auctions to promote broadband deployment services and communications infrastructure expansion.”
Christina Mason, vice president of government affairs for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), said that the legislation puts forward a solid, common-sense and flexible solution toward eradicating the rural divide.
“We are encouraged by the bill’s focus on connecting rural communities to infrastructure capable of delivering reliable high-speed broadband, which COVID has shown to be more important than ever before,” Mason said. “Internet access helped America weather the storm, and WISPA’s 700-plus internet service provider members have proudly worked overtime to keep millions of Americans in the most remote areas of this nation connected during very difficult times. We believe no one should be left to compete in a 21st-century economy without access to broadband.”
Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, said that existing programs like the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF) play a critical role in helping providers deploy and sustain high-speed broadband in rural areas. It follows, she said, that NTCA endorses the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act because it is intended to to enable new initiatives and make use of existing programs to support the buildout and operation of broadband networks.
“If the last 15 months have shown us anything, it is that broadband connectivity is essential for daily life,” Bloomfield said. “When the COVID-19 pandemic forced so much of our lives to move online, NTCA’s community-based providers went above and beyond to keep rural Americans connected. But we have more work to do, and the Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act would provide significant resources and powerful tools to help with the dual objectives of deploying advanced networks and sustaining high-quality affordable services across rural America.”
Don Bishop is executive editor and associate publisher of AGL Magazine.